Despite push for change, horse racing conditions may be getting worse

It takes a few seconds to realize what you are looking at.

The Sunday cover of The New York Times always features one of the very best photographs taken in the world that week, and those shots are very often quite jarring. In some faraway land, you often learn with your first sip of coffee that people are living through the unthinkable.

But this Sunday's cover didn't cause an immediate, visceral reaction. This took some studying. Set in the middle of the page -- and not very deep -- was a horizontal photo. The action is obscured by two rails in the foreground, and between them there's a man looking down at a horse. His hand rests on the horse's shoulder. A large silver cross hangs from his neck. You can't tell if the horse is dead yet.

The story below is entitled: Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys. It is a sprawling -- almost 6,500 words, covering three full pages inside -- piece of investigative work that comes to what probably is not a startling conclusion: the big-money business of horse racing is rife with unsafe practices for both the horses and jockeys.

It is disconcerting, though, that conditions appear to have gotten worse since the 2008 Kentucky Derby caused Congress to push for reform. That year, Eight Belles broke two ankles during the most-watched race in America and was euthanized. Under pressure, the broad, loosely-affiliated network of tracks and associations that makes up the horse racing industry promised congressmen and senators that there'd be reform. There hasn't been, at least not to any significant degree.

Maryland's tracks are among the safest in the country -- there's a state-by-state breakdown of that here -- with Pimlico averaging 3.8 incidents and Laurel 3.5 per 1,000 starts. The average is 5.6.

But Maryland's tracks also are not yet afflicted* with the force that appears to be the root cause of the problem: casinos. In states where slots and table games have been paired with horse racing, there's an injection of fresh money being pumped into the sport. But instead of using it to ensure safer conditions, some owners and trainers have pushed their horses harder than ever before.

*It's hard to figure out if afflicted is the right term. Casinos are seen by many as the last, best way to prop up the horse racing industry.

These are not new issues, of course. Horses have been overused -- is there another, better term for it? -- by man for centuries. One of the very best pieces of daily newspaper journalism ever produced, and one studied by anyone interested in writing about sports, is called "Death of a Racehorse." In it, W.C. Heinz tells of a promising horse's debut -- Air Lift, full brother of Assault -- ending with the vets removing broken bones to show the insurance company. (You'll learn in the Times piece that this practice isn't the usual anymore; horses are often simply thrown out before any sort of medical examination can be completed.)

As to why so many horses seem to breaking down, the Times finds no new answers. Drugs are and have long been the culprit, and the innovators on the performance enhancement side will always be ahead of those on the testing side. (Though some of the ingredients being used -- Viagra, cocaine -- are absurd.) A horse doped up on painkillers will literally run until his or her leg snaps. Think about that.

If the Times article offers any sort of possible resolution to this problem, it's federal regulation. Which may, in fact, be on the horizon now that this story has appeared a month before horse racing takes the national spotlight in Louisville. It's worth the read, and the videos -- especially the one of paralyzed jockey Jacky Martin -- will haunt you.*

(Watching it made me think of a young jockey I wrote about in 2006 name Kyle Kaenel. The son of Preakness legend Cowboy Jack Kaenel -- who, at age 16, held off Bill Shoemaker riding the favorite in 1982 -- Kyle had gone into the family business, and had the scars to prove it. He'd already been trampled once, a tape of which he kept locked in a cabinet but never watched. Kyle was young then -- only a teenager -- and I think he'd honestly never given a thought to walking away from the sport. It was all he knew. But I looked him up earlier today to find that he had, in fact, retired after another severe fall. When I first wrote about him, I said that shaking his hand was like "gathering up a bundle of twigs" -- he was tall for a jockey, and lanky, of course -- and upon hearing of his decision, I wished that I could shake his hand again.)

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