Tragedy of Eight Belles spurs safety discussion

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Racing Commission will form a committee to study state racing safety issues, chairman John Franzone said yesterday after a discussion at the board's monthly meeting at Pimlico Race Course.

Franzone requested the discussion be part of the agenda because of the industry's renewed push for horse safety following the death of the filly Eight Belles after the Kentucky Derby, which has caused what some industry officials have called "a crisis" in public opinion.

The discussion identified at least two issues that could be addressed locally: toe grabs and whips.

"I think we can brainstorm and study those two issues, and we can attack the low-hanging fruit," Franzone said. "If we can get rid of toe grabs [whose purpose is like that of a football cleat, to increase traction on a horseshoe] we'll do it. If we can come up with a whip that's satisfactory to trainers and jockeys, we'll do that. With the quality of dirt tracks we have in Maryland, synthetics is not an issue at this time. Can we solve the breeding problem? Nope. Can we take aim at some of these drugs and start to identify and eliminate them? Yes."

On one level, Franzone said, the attack on drugs and steroids in Maryland is already under way. Franzone said trainer Dale Capuano is in the process of building a $250,000 hyperbaric chamber at his farm in an effort to eliminate the use of Lasix and, perhaps, steroids in some situations.

"It's great for a lot of injuries," Franzone said. "Shin splints, for one. It really does a great job. It's what Terrell Owens used to get back in the Super Bowl a couple years ago."

Jockeys currently carry long leather or fiberglass whips that trainer Tim Tulluck told the commission give "a bad perception." Suggestions were made to consider a shorter, European-style whip, which can be made of a softer substance like foam rubber. Jockey Jeremy Rose also suggested a "water popper," which releases water when tapped, while Franzone said he would like to "ban the whip."

Recently the commission was criticized by the media for not immediately adopting new rules outlawing steroid use, choosing instead to determine how testing will be done and how the new rules will be applied. But Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association attorney Alan Foreman said the state chose the better path, as those that rushed into changing their rules are now having to pull back.

"California will have the new rules in place in time for the Breeders' Cup in October," he said. "And Maryland is moving with the rest of the country toward an industrywide set of rules by next year."

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