The Breeders' Cup, which took place last weekend, is now the biggest meet in thoroughbred racing, featuring the best horses from around the world competing over two days at one track. It provides a financial boost to the sport and expands its reach by bringing it into living rooms all over the world.
But it should also be a time to take stock of the challenges the sport faces and the changes it needs to make. The time has come for a national racing commissioner with broad powers to create uniform drug policies, curb abuses, police the stables and create a coordinated business plan to move the industry forward.
Most professional sports are overseen by a commissioner's office that sets the sport's standards. Racing is governed by more than 30 different local associations that set their own rules and then police themselves. The result is a disjointed set of standards and practices and uneven enforcement.
As racing has become a big business with multi-million dollar purses and lucrative stud fees, it is essential that regulations become more uniform. Business interests and local power struggles have eclipsed sporting interests, sometimes at the expense of the horses and jockeys.
A high value is placed on yearlings and two-year-olds sold at auction based on bloodlines and a scant number of workouts over very short distances. A need to maximize the rate of return puts owners and trainers under intense pressure to push the envelope with these young horses — often resulting in injury.
Owners and trainers have become reliant on medication or steroids to enhance performance and mask pain. Since each local racing association or state racing commission has jurisdiction over these practices, horses can run in one state on one regimen of drugs, but not in another.
Thoroughbred bloodlines have been progressively weakened by an overemphasis on breeding horses for speed at the expense of stamina. Long racing campaigns were once the norm, but it is common for elite horses to retire to the breeding shed at an earlier age — often due to injury. If these injuries were caused by bone, tendon or muscle defects, the health risks are likely to be passed on to their offspring.
The industry has been slow to respond to these issues. An intense light shines on the industry when a horse like Barbaro breaks down in the Preakness or the filly Eight Belles is euthanized on the track after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.
At this weekend's Breeders' Cup, the sport celebrated the performance of some magnificent thoroughbreds, and the duel to the finish between Zenyatta and Blame was heart-stopping.
Yet two of this year's Triple Crown race winners — Super Saver and Drosselmeyer — remain sidelined because of injuries. And the Breeders' Cup itself had one fatality. Rough Sailing, who slipped and fell going into the first turn of the Juvenile Turf, had to be euthanized shortly after the race.
There are dozens of incidents of fatalities and career-ending injuries happening every year involving lower profile horses in more obscure races.
The Jockey Club, an industry organization, has launched the Equine Injury Database to begin tracking thoroughbred fatalities. Its initial study found that an average of two fatal injuries occur per 1,000 starters. Compared to race tracks around the world, this is a very high number — England experienced less than one fatality per 1,000 starts and Australia less than one-half per 1,000.
Over the past few years, several tracks have installed synthetic surfaces in an attempt to reduce catastrophic injuries that occur on dirt tracks. But there has been an associated rise in a different set of injuries — equally life-threatening or career-ending — on synthetic surfaces.
More research needs to be done on the incidence and cause of injuries, and various solutions need to be identified and implemented to significantly reduce injuries.
The industry should also adopt uniform rules regarding the use of medication and testing requirements, conduct pre-race inspections for health issues, review breeding practices and commit to stringent enforcement of the regulations and meaningful penalties for violations.
The creation of a national commissioner who is empowered to lead a unified effort is an essential step, or decisions will continue to be made by disparate local associations and state racing commissions. If the industry doesn't act, Congress may intervene with its own prescriptive remedies. And that would be a disaster for the sport.
Dean DeLuke is a thoroughbred owner and author of "Shedrow," a novel that examines the sport of thoroughbred racing. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.