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TrackNotes: Santa Anita's Sirens

I live next to a Chicago firehouse, Engine 5.

All the good clichés are true and, man, can those guys cook! To answer your question, no, it's not a problem, especially if you think about the good work they do. The cats don't pay no mind either.

But I do hear many sirens.

I really don't walk on that heavily trod side of the street very much anymore, but traipsing through the worlds of modern American sports, the sirens suggest the possibility of getting busted at any time. You see one side of the coin and then the other. I would imagine bank robbers know it's wrong, but rationalization is one of the most powerful traits in, probably, all of God's creatures. It explains how we tolerate everything the charlatans are doing with our sports games.

The current scourge is the NCAA basketball tournament. I won't begrudge the enjoyment, I guess, but what was the threshold preventing Tom Izzo from strangling that kid?

If I'm that player, I tell the asshole, purportedly a grown man who attacked him at least three times, "Find me a bowl of soup in that obscenely criminal salary of yours. Teach me maybe with well-placed yelling, but don't attack and belittle me in front of millions of people. I am a human, even though you'll never remember me."

Did you notice how the young players were the ones with the maturity? Gently reasoning and protecting Izzo from himself? Way more than the assistant coaches? Tom Izzo and all the rest of them are not, by any measure, important. Except in their own pebble-leathered minds.

It's endemic and, bless me father for I have sinned, there's way more than plenty rationalization to go around in American Thoroughbred horse racing.

It took me a long time to pull the trigger on TrackNotes last time because I wanted to try to understand why so many horses had died at Santa Anita, a revered venue in racing. It was a developing story then, and now.

Just as Santa Anita had phased back into serious workouts, another horse went down. On the first day. The Arcadia, California track is still not open for racing. March 29 is the target.

The track's owner, the Stronach Group, whose patriarch Frank Stronach seems to love horse racing much more than, say, Churchill Downs Inc., rolled out a knee-jerk laundry list of reforms. But the good news is that they threw some intentions out there, sparked the discussion, and made some good new rules.

Also, NBC, in its coverage of Saturday's Louisiana Oaks (woohoo) and Louisiana Derby, paraded the lede in kicking off with attention to the horse deaths. The Stronach Group statement was strong, including "the current system is broken," and "the industry has yet to do everything that can be done to prevent (horse deaths)."

The high points of Santa Anita's edicts include:

  • Banning all race-day medications, including the diuretic furosemide (Lasix), an anti-bleeding medication;
  • Virtually eliminatingthe use of whips in races, except to keep a horse steady for safety purposes;
  • Transparency of a horse's medical records, aimed at changes in ownership;
  • Heightened and stricter out-of-competition drug testing; and
  • Required application for and permission to work out a horse.

Not for nothing, the use of the riding crop on a horse is a problem of perception. I don't think there's anything wrong with tapping a horse on the butt with a whip, which are much more gentle these days, but when a jockey doesn't have any horse and beats the hell out of his, that's wrong. England just established a rule of five strokes maximum in a race. Just a thought.

In the discussion, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey talked of how he served on a task force dealing with a similar spate of deaths at Aqueduct.

"After hundreds of hours, we determined that it was, by and large, racing horses with pre-existing conditions that caused the catastrophic injuries," Bailey said. He said Stronach and Santa Anita made the same conclusions in a study it had led before this current series of events. Don't get me started on NBC analyst Randy Moss. He blamed the weather and that doesn't help at all, Randy.

Bailey also endorsed an end to whipping, except for safety purposes.

But it's the drugs that seem to be the problem. The jaw dropped again when I read about the insidiousness of a drug regimen that appears routine. And devastating.


There's no reason to dispute Bailey's conclusion of pre-existing conditions, but what if the horse is given a condition that increases his likelihood of breakdown and death? Is that not a crime?

The Paulick Report explains.

The drug apparently supersedes the natural expulsion of old bone cells and replaces it with "new" bone structure. Problem is "that process taking place in a still-developing horse is that it will make new bone development brittle and slow (the) healing of injuries to the bone."

Kentucky Horse Racing Commission equine medical director Dr. Mary Scollay said that while horses three- and four-years-old were identified with the problem, it might be migrating to horses two- and three-years-old.

Of the horses who died at Santa Anita, nine were three-years-old, eight were four, three were five, and two were seven.

But the real hurt comes in knowing that very young horses are given this drug to give them enough structure to withstand a rigorous display workout at auctions. At two years old. What chance are they given?

It's undetectable in the bloodstream after a very short period of time, but lingers in the bone, and subsequent owners and trainers are not told. It's as sick as it sounds, at least to me.

What now?

I'm happy with the self-reflection of a few important people. As long as they truly follow through, California seems like a state that thinks it can solve problems and make things better. Leadership isn't that difficult and those in the game who are not being leaders will, hopefully, be left behind. And that includes some of the biggest names in racing, including some Californians.

So, for now, I'm on the hopeful side of the street.

On The Track

We've also had some racing! Imagine that.

* In the We're-Going-to-the-Derby-Baby! Department, By My Standards won the Louisiana Derby and enough points to crash the country club dance. Roses, first Saturday, hats, bourbon and all that stuff.

He leveled stone mediocre in the mid- to upper-70s in the Beyer Speed Figure game. In this race, he was initially given a 78 Beyer which they later upticked to 86. I'm tired of horses getting inflated Beyers because of the class of the race. And changing it? Doesn't that invite blank skepticism?

This horse, the son of Goldencents, don't feel bad if you've never heard of him unlike this hardcore, had never run against stakes winners before, not even a $50k overnighter. In no way does he belong in the Kentucky Derby, and we hope he doesn't hurt himself or anyone else. And I got more news, Calvin, this one's not even Mine That Bird.

* Pioneerof the Nile, a fine runner in his own right, but most famously known as the sire of super blazer American Pharoah, died last week. He was 13. He apparently had a heart attack shortly after fulfilling his stallion duty at WinStar Farms. He was a fairly successful sire, and indications are that the 'Pharoah might also sire some winners.

* Vyjack, the nine-year-old gelding with loyal fans all the way from the Left Coast to the Fox Valley, has been retired. Owner of the one-mile turf record at Santa Anita, this is his second go with the cake-and-coffee sayonara.

He was retired a year ago with a ligament flare-up, but re-entered training with designs on running this year. Thankfully, it wasn't worse, but after he misstepped in a recent workout, the decision was made. They're looking for a job for him. If not the typical lead pony gig, perhaps he could be the stunt steed in the American Pharoah movie they - not Disney - had better be thinking about making.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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