How To Improve And Grow The Sport Of Horse Racing Part 2: Increased Safety

Photo Credit: Michael J. Cox

The controversial Kentucky Derby disqualification of Maximum Security four weeks ago, along with the 20+ deaths of horses at Santa Anita Park this year, should generate many new discussions within the sport of horse racing. If the sport of horse racing wants to improve and grow, I feel that it’s high time for many aspects of the sport to be questioned from a competition and safety standpoint.

One that I would like to thrown onto the table for discussion, is this field size of the Kentucky Derby. I feel that if the sport is really concerned with rider and horse safety, the size of Kentucky Derby field should be reduced. I am not the first or the only one who feels this way.

In a field of 20, that are very close in terms of talent and inexperience, that is simply too many horses vying for the same real estate on the racetrack coming onto the stretch. It’s dangerous. Most of the other big stakes races limit their field to fourteen horses, such as the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

The safety of a field of 20 has to be scrutinized but there is a competition component to this as well. A large field like the Kentucky Derby often also leads to a few horses getting a bad trip because of it. What if you were the owner, trainer or jockey of such a horse and your Kentucky Derby winning dream was hampered by a maiden (a horse who is still winless)?

So my proposal, how about eliminating the extended gate for the Kentucky Derby and just run 15 horses? I doubt that a reduced field would lead to anything less exciting.

If the field is reduced, I feel that the Kentucky Derby field should be limited to horses who have actually won a graded stakes race. The Road to the Kentucky Derby offers 35 graded stakes races for Derby hopefuls a chance to winning. And with much smaller fields. For example, this year’s Santa Anita Derby had a field of six.

My thinking is, if you haven’t won at least one of the point-paying Derby trail races in a much smaller field, you really don’t deserve to be in one of the most prestigious horse races in the world.

More importantly, many more things within the sport need to be questioned on the safety front. The sport needs to think outside the box and desperately needs fresh ideas. So, another topic I’d like to have thrown onto the round-table of discussion: Should horse races still be raced on a wet, sloppy race surfaces?

Track Surface Quality

Racing in the slop. Has anyone ever asked: Why are we still doing this? Think about this for a minute. In the “old days” NFL football used to be played in some of the nastiest field conditions, in the mud and the blood. In snow and blizzards. On the frozen tundra. Then, later on artificial surfaces like Astroturf that had little give which resulted in many foot and knee injuries. The NFLPA stepped in over player safety concerns and now the NFL plays on much better field conditions and surfaces today.

Professional sports in general have adopted better technology for its playing surfaces. Quite a few pro sports stadiums have drainage systems under the playing surface to keep the field from having standing water and make it suitable for sporting events quicker. Some stadiums like Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City have a heating system underneath the field to prevent the field from freezing.

Remember that the NFL cancelled the Kansas City Chiefs-Los Angeles Rams game in Mexico last year over poor field conditions and moved it to another location (Los Angeles). I doubt that this would have happened in the 1960s or 1970s.

In motorsports, they don’t race in the rain for oval track racing. They do race in the rain on road courses but racing surfaces, circuit design and tire technology have advanced over the years to make it safer in these conditions.

Yet, the sport of horse racing has never really caught up to speed with other professional sports when it comes advances in playing surfaces.

The sport of horse racing has experimented with different types of artificial surfaces. However, many went back to dirt surfaces over complaints and expense. There are studies to support that some of these artificial race surfaces decreased breakdowns on the track. Then other studies that suggest that they had a negligible effect.

Breakdowns at the track really hamper the growth of this sport. Have you ever been to horse race with small children around and a horse breaks down on the track and a tarp gets thrown over him? I have. Not good. Everyone connected to the sport needs to experience this once firsthand.

Now, more than ever, the sport of horse racing really needs better comparative and unbiased studies on different types of race surfaces.

You may be of the opinion that track quality really isn’t the problem in horse racing, that other things (namely drugs) are the factors which have contributed to the recent rash of horse deaths at racetracks. However, one theory for proposed for 20+ deaths at Santa Anita Park this year may be the quality of the race track. Southern California had one of its wettest winters in a nearly a decade and some feel that may have made resulted in a track that is too soft.

Correlation does not imply causation. But when a rash of horse deaths occur at one specific track, with the same drugs used at other tracks, quality of track surface along with training methods need to be seriously questioned.

The sport of horse racing is centered around its star athletes: the horses. Shouldn’t the stars of the sport have an unspoken voice for change? We all know that some horses don’t relish racing in wet, sloppy track conditions and produce sub-par results on them. Then you hear stories from last year’s sloppy Kentucky Derby where trainer Todd Pletcher said he was still cleaning out mud from Magnum Moon’s eye several days after the race. Horses can’t talk. They don’t have their own union.

Then there was this year’s sloppy, muddy Kentucky Derby. I assume that 99% of the people reading this is in complete agreement that we never want another disqualification in the Kentucky Derby ever again. It was anticlimactic, controversial and it angered many fans and bettors.

While I don’t relish rehashing the Kentucky Derby and the disqualification all over again, I noticed something that I feel that is relevant to the topic of the quality of racing surfaces. Look at the replay of the stretch run of this year’s Kentucky Derby. Really focus in on Maximum Security’s preferred path all the way to the wire. Watch his line closely.

If you really follow the path that Maximum Security took in this race, he seemed to shy away from areas on the track that had standing water. In fact, this is one theory as to why he lugged out like he did, to evade a puddle (shown below).

As Maximum Security heads to the wire in the lead, you see him hit some channels on the track that had standing water, then weave a bit one way or the other to run on a “cleaner” part of the track. That was the horse, not Luis Saez the jockey making that decision.

Had this race been run on a dry, fast track or even on a “good” surface, I am confident that Maximum Security’s racing line would have not varied so much and he would be the undisputed 2019 Kentucky Derby champion today.

Overall, racing on off-track racing surfaces needs to seriously be reconsidered. It kills most handicapper’s race strategies. You can pretty much take all the handicapping you have done for dry, fast tracks and throw it in the trash when it comes to a wet, sloppy races.

Racing on sloppy wet surfaces most often results in strange race outcomes with longshot horses finishing near the front that often won’t ever repeat the same performance. The leads to another question: Isn’t this sport supposed to built somewhat around the sports bettor? A lot of bettors steer clear or bet lower amounts on wet races and especially when their race favorite has little or no previous experience racing on such surfaces. So this hurts racetracks as well as they aren’t maximizing their profit with the handle.

Most importantly, back to the safety issue, how can racing on sloppy wet racing surfaces with standing water be viewed as safer for the horses and the jockeys?

If the sport of horse racing wants one area to completely focus on to improve safety and decrease breakdowns on the track, the quality of racing surfaces has to be at the very top of the list. There are a number of colleges and universities around the world that are dedicated to equine research that would be willing to help.

But for a sport with no commissioner, it’s going to take prominent track owners, trainers and the jockey’s union to band together and make necessary changes or try different things.

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