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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Time to Apply the Brakes?

There appears to be a rash of racing accidents of late at harness tracks in the United States and Canada, culminating in this past Friday night’s massive pile-up at the Meadowlands. So far we have been lucky in that no drivers have been killed in these spills. Aaron Merriman is out indefinitely due to injuries following a racing accident at the Meadows on June 11, Richie Silverman is in intensive care and Daniel Dube has suffered back injuries resulting from Friday night’s spill at the Meadowlands, Jim Mettinis injured in an accident at Freehold back in April are a few of the drivers who have suffered injuries as a result of racing accidents. Fortunately, most of our accidents result in drivers escaping or suffering minor injuries but the potential for serious if not fatal injury exists. Perhaps it is coincidence, just a rash of accidents which occurs every so often. Then again, perhaps there is something more to it.

There are several possibilities which may explain the seemingly increasing number of racing accidents. Perhaps horses are racing too fast, horses are racing when they shouldn’t be, drivers not as experienced as they should be, or perhaps a combination of these factors. Let’s look at these possibilities.

Racing too fast – I know this sounds contradictory; isn’t racing faster the goal of a horse race? Of course it is, but maybe we have pushed the envelope too far when it comes to speed. Thoroughbreds have basically been running as fast as they are able to for many years while standardbreds continue to race faster and faster. With all due respect to breeders, I don’t believe our breeding has improved that much over the past ten years, so what makes our horses continue to race faster and faster? Perhaps it can be attributed to tracks being banked more for speed than they were before, continuing advances to equipment such as the sulky, continuing “advances” in training, or a combination of these things which results in our horses going too fast; to the point of our horses racing beyond their natural ability which results in horses jumping off–stride and falling more often which increases the chances of a resulting accident. When you have horses in lower classes putting establishing the lifetime marks they are these days, you have to wonder. Maybe we have tweaked with the “engine” too much that we are operating outside the safety zone?

Horses are racing when they shouldn’t - With so many racetracks now racing extended meets, many tracks are experiencing horse shortages. As a result, where horses in the past may have been lucky to race three weeks a month, these horses are finding their way into races every week and sometimes more often to help racing secretaries fill race cards. With slot-infused purses, owners and trainers may be more hesitant to let a horse skip a week to recover from the racing wars. Hence, increased racing brings with it the potential for horses racing with more aches which may account for more breaking in races. Another problem with smaller horse populations being available at any individual track is we find cheaper quality horses racing at our fastest tracks resulting in horses with greater soundness issues being asked to race faster than they have in the past.

Lack of driving experience – Before the racino age, there was less disparity between racetrack purse structures. Traditionally, a driver would start off at a minor track then after a while progress to a mid-size track and after doing their time, if they have the ability, they would find themselves driving at our major raceways. Now with the introduction of racinos, we find drivers with any real ability looking to ply their trade at tracks with slot-infused purses much quicker, leaving a void at our non-racino tracks which is being filled with drivers with less experience than they traditionally would have had. The end result is drivers are less seasoned and experienced when they move up to the better tracks resulting in an increased potential for an accident when something goes wrong within a race.

No one disputes racing accidents come along with being a driver; it is an inherent risk of driving race horses. Many drivers will be involved in at least one racing accident during their career; it comes with the territory. That being said, we owe it to our human and equine participants to make racing as safe as possible. The USTA and racing commissions need to get together to fully investigate these accidents to see what if anything can be done to reduce the risk of accidents. The last thing we want to see is the expression “Speed Kills” to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A column in the Asbury Park Press previews what is at stake when Governor Christie's commission on Sports, Entertainment, and Gaming submits its report at the end of the month.  Some people feel there will be only one winner when the committee reports.

Cangamble talks about the curernt controversy regarding trainer Lou Pena.  If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is not your imagination.

You cite accurate reasons, I'll add another. The horses are wide open far more over the course of the race than they were not that long ago and that practice (style) leads to a loose line in many instances. The drivers are chasing, asking for more, the lines are slack and the horse is already going as fast as he is able. If you watch a lot of races you realize these episodes could be more frequent.