Yesterday morning, track veterinarian Forrest Peacock was checking horses at Pimlico Race Course, making sure they were in condition to race and withstand the blazing heat. In 40 years, he said, he has never seen a horse expire from a direct heat-related problem, but he has seen many cases of heatstroke.
"Oh, God, yes, we see heatstroke," he said. "Some horses don't sweat, and sometimes you'll see one that seems to be a chronic repeater. And there are times when they've been in the throes of heatstroke and bumped their heads and died."
But at Pimlico, everyone from Peacock to outriders to trainers keeps close eyes on horses in weather like this. The track provided water hoses at frequent intervals along the front stretch, where outriders, pony riders and grooms can cool their animals.
Usually, racehorses are washed down before heading to the track, saddled in the air-conditioned paddock and watered down again after racing. The track has also shortened the post parade. But even those precautions don't relieve all fears.
Yesterday, as temperatures climbed toward 100 degrees, trainer Edwin W. Merryman was hoping, without much real belief, that the weather would cool a little by 5:30 p.m., when his horse Sherbrook Rye was to run in the $50,000 Humphrey S. Finney Stakes for Maryland-breds, a 1 1/8 -mile race on turf.
"It's brutal and it's hard for the horses running in this type of heat," he said. "We will watch them carefully. ... But they all race in the heat. You cross your fingers that nothing happens.
"You have to take care of the horses the same way you would a marathoner on days like this."
On Friday night, Merryman made sure his horses were well-hydrated and dosed with a syringe of electrolytes. Yesterday, the horses continued to be watched and cooled before their races. Outriders and pony riders were being just as vigilant.
On Friday, outrider Jim Barbine worried about the impact on his horse, Spy, and walked him into the air-conditioned paddock between races.
"I was talking to the vet, trying to figure out things to do to cool his blood," said Barbine after leading his horse inside. "When you're sitting in the afternoon sun for four hours, you think about things like that."
What he wanted to come up with was something like saddlebags that would hang on both sides of Spy's neck, against his jugular vein and carotid artery, the optimum relief method.
By yesterday, he had decided to give Spy the day off and came to the track with Fetchet. He cooled him down by holding ice to the horse's veins in a baggie.
"I thought about using pantyhose, but I'm afraid they'll stretch," he said. "I think I'm going to try to find a kid's plastic life preserver. I'll cut it in half, fill it with ice and then clip it together around his neck."
Peacock said he can't remember Pimlico or Laurel closing because of heat, but trainer Tim Hooper said Delaware Park did.
Over the past two days, only one horse, Muncaster Mill in the seventh race yesterday, was scratched because of heat.
"You can tell when an attack [of heatstroke] is coming on," Peacock said. "When a horse is saddled and it won't move, that's a clear sign."
In the Finney Stakes, won by Learning, Merryman's horse, Sherbrook Rye, finished fourth.