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Horse deaths at Preakness highlight stark reality of racing

When two horses died at the Preakness on Pimlico Race Track, it revealed an ugly reality to spectators who haven't seen a horse fatality at the event in nine years – that such deaths are not uncommon in the industry.

The deaths of two horses at Pimlico Race Course on Preakness day revealed a stark reality to spectators who hadn't seen a horse fatality at the event in nine years.

Though the deaths shocked some spectators at the 141st Preakness Stakes on Saturday, more than 30 horses have died at Pimlico in the past six years – a fact generally unknown to casual fans, or those who attend the annual event to party in the infield.

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Homeboykris, a 9-year-old gelding, collapsed after winning the first race on Saturday. Track officials believe he had a heart problem. His carcass is to undergo a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

Pramedya, a 4-year-old filly, fractured her left front leg in the fourth race and was euthanized on the track.

The 135,256 in attendance Saturday set a record for the second straight year.

The Preakness is the middle leg of the Triple Crown, three of the best known events in horse racing. They attract spectators who otherwise pay little attention to the sport, creating an opportunity for the industry to make fans — or the risk, when things go wrong, of turning them away.

Joseph De Francis spent 35 years in the business. He was once a partner in Laurel Park and Pimlico.

"When a tragic accident occurs, obviously it's going to put off a number of casual fans that are tuning in for the first time," he said.

Mike Hopkins, the head of the Maryland Racing Commission, called the horses' deaths "an unfortunate thing that occurs."

Officials put horses through an "aggressive" array of examinations to make sure they're healthy and fit to run, he said Sunday.

"The welfare of these animals is one of our top priorities," he said. "We do everything we can to ensure the safety of these horses and the riders."

As a result, he said, injuries have declined in recent years.

"I can't put a finger on what we've done to make that happen," he said. "It's probably a combination of a number of things."

Thirty-one horses died of injuries at Pimlico between 2009 and 2015, according to the Equine Injury Database. Twenty-four of them were age 4 or older, like Homeboykris and Pramedya.

"What both these accidents do underscore is that athletes, as in any sport, are at risk," De Francis said. "We as people that are involved with the sport need to take every precaution reasonably possible to make sure we're minimizing those risks."

The last horse death at the Preakness was in 2007, when 4-year-old Mending Fences broke his right ankle and was euthanized. The year before, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro suffered a fractured leg and eventually was euthanized.

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On average, 24 horses die each week at racetracks across America, The New York Times found in 2012. The deaths of Barbaro in 2006 and another Kentucky Derby entrant, Eight Belles, in 2008, brought calls for more oversight by the federal government.

The deaths of Homeboykris and Pramedya were not announced at the track on Saturday, but the news spread as spectators read their cell phones.

Keith Desormeaux, trainer of Preakness winner Exaggerator, didn't reconsider running his horse.

"I had no idea," he said. "I didn't get here until 3:30. I watched the Sir Barton before the Preakness. That was the only race I watched. I had no idea what went on, so it couldn't unsettle me.

"That being said, my horse is so sound and so clean and so … obviously an off track is no problem for him. So it wouldn't have affected my confidence about running over the track at all."

Arnaud Delacour, the trainer of Pramedya, said the decision to euthanize the horse was made on the spot by Pimlico's veterinarians.

He said he's not sure what happened, but thinks she may have clipped a heel.

"It looked like she was traveling well, and in the turn I just saw her go down," he said. "The decision is made quickly so the horse won't suffer. It is a tough call to make sometimes, but yesterday was a clear-cut case."

After the death of Eight Belles, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association formed a Safety and Integrity Alliance to establish national standards that would cover the use of medications in horse racing.

Legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would establish an independent anti-doping organization for horse racing, but the bill has not progressed beyond a subcommittee.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has focused the use of muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatories and other drugs in racing, which the group says can mask injuries.

After the deaths of Homeboykris and Pramedya, PETA called on their owners to release the horses' veterinary records.

"PETA wants to know what condition these horses were in before the races and is calling on their owners to immediately release veterinary records and a complete list of medications that the horses were administered in the two weeks before the Preakness races," the group said in a statement. "We have been advocating for no medications to be administered to horses in the two weeks before a race so that if a horse is sore or ill, the track veterinarian will be able to detect it."

Roy and Gretchen Jackson, the owners of Pramedya and Barbaro, have been outspoken against the use of medications. They have lobbied to ban all medications on race day.

Delacour said he supported making Pramedya's records public.

"My response is, yeah, that's fine," Delacour said. "It all should be clear."

Owners of Homeboykris could not be reached Sunday for comment. Chris Campitelli, the son of his trainer, said the horse didn't appear exhausted after the race.

"Everything was normal," he said. "I was with him immediately after the race and he didn't even seem that tired."

Dan Dreyfuss, a veterinarian with the Maryland Veterinary Group in Laurel, said it's less common to euthanize a horse that suffers a broken leg, like Pramedya, than it was in the past. Still, he said treating catastrophic leg breaks in a horse can be impossible in some cases, which means the horse must be euthanized.

For instance, if a horse had a compound fracture, treatment can be extremely difficult because even after the bone is repaired, the horse must still be able to put weight on its leg. In some cases, the break is too severe for that to happen, he said.

"Each case is individual," said Dreyfuss, who did not examine either of the horses that died Saturday. "There's so many variables. It depends on what bone and the configuration of the fracture and the damage to the soft tissue. Unfortunately it's not a simple, cookbook type of problem."

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Childs Walker and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.



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