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As it prepares for 144th Preakness, horse racing industry faces larger 'existential' crisis

As it prepares for 144th Preakness, horse racing industry faces larger 'existential' crisis
Flavien Prat rides Country House to victory during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 4, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. Luis Saez on Maximum Security finished first but was disqualified. (John Minchillo / AP)

For all the chaos and discord that erupted in the moments after the Kentucky Derby, the manic finishing stretch of the race could have produced a far worse result for a traumatized sport.

What if War of Will had fallen and suffered a fatal injury when Maximum Security cut in front of him as they turned for home? How would the viewing public — already disturbed by 23 horse deaths at Santa Anita Park earlier in the year — have processed such a gruesome twist in America’s most watched race?

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“It would’ve been the biggest disaster in horse racing history,” said War of Will’s trainer, Mark Casse.

The colt kept his feet, but the fears raised by his near-calamity spoke to a greater unease that has gripped the sport this spring. From the talent-rich barns of California to the neighborhoods around Pimlico Race Course, worries have percolated about the future of thoroughbred racing.

The deaths at Santa Anita prompted concerns of a referendum to end horse racing in California and inspired calls for sweeping reform from The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and both major tracks in Maryland — Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Meanwhile, the debate over Pimlico’s future intensified as the issue hit the state legislature, with The Stronach Group unsuccessfully seeking $120 million in state funds to accelerate work on a “super track” at Laurel — while Baltimore officials opposed the legislation, pushing to keep the Preakness at its historic home. Negotiations over a potential $424 million redevelopment of Pimlico have stalled as the city pursues a lawsuit to gain control of the track.

Thoroughbred racing has endured crises, but those who’ve lived through the ups and downs say the sport faces another reckoning as it prepares for the 144th running of the Preakness on Saturday.

“We’re in an existential crisis that no one saw coming,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and an industry insider for the past four decades. “If there’s one thing people cannot tolerate, it’s our equine athletes dying on the racetrack.”

He said this spring and the spring of 2008, when the filly Eight Belles had to be euthanized after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, have been the most tumultuous in his memory. That continued Friday, when filly Congrats Gal died in the Miss Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. The cause has yet to be determined.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, in town to seek his seventh Preakness win, said the time has never been riper for a national governing body to coordinate responses to these troubles.

“Every year, we get more of an upheaval on so many issues,” the 83-year-old Lukas said. “Every track is an island and everybody has their own selfish agendas. We need to pull everybody under the same umbrella on medication, stakes quality, racing days.”

In March, congressmen from New York and Kentucky introduced the Horse Racing Integrity Act to establish uniform drug testing standards enforced by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. But that bill has proved divisive as well, with The Stronach Group and other powers from the industry supporting it while Churchill Downs Inc., host of the Kentucky Derby, opposes it.

The crisis at Santa Anita lasted from late December to the end of March, with 23 horses suffering fatal injuries. The grisly stretch prompted animal-rights activists to call for a halt to racing while track operators and industry leaders scrambled for explanations.

“It’s been incredibly tense for the horsemen in California,” NBC horse racing analyst Randy Moss said. “There was just a lot of pressure on trainers who were literally seeing their careers flash before their eyes if Santa Anita had to close permanently.”

There’s still no definitive explanation for the spate of deaths, though many Santa Anita trainers have blamed unusually wet weather combined with poor initial management of the track surface.

The track has now gone six weeks without a fatality, but the wider racing industry is still experiencing what Moss termed a “wake-up call.”

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The Stronach Group closed Santa Anita for three weekends of racing, but CEO Belinda Stronach went a step further by announcing stricter limits on drugs (most notably Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication used by trainers in almost every American race) and a ban on whips used by jockeys.

“We have arrived at a watershed moment,” Stronach wrote in an open letter. “The Stronach Group has long been a strong advocate for the abolishment of race-day medication, but we will wait no longer for the industry to come together as one to institute these changes.”

Two weeks before the May 4 Kentucky Derby, The Stronach Group joined with a coalition of major track operators to announce impending Lasix bans for 2-year-old horses and all horses running in stakes races.

Though the steps drew praise from animal-rights activists and some within the industry (Moss called Stronach’s actions “appropriately aggressive”), many horsemen reacted angrily.

“The proposed ban, if implemented, is an experiment capable of resulting in irreparable harm to many of our horses,” the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association said in a joint statement. The chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, which regulates the state industry, has said he doesn’t foresee the measures being implemented here.

Foreman criticized The Stronach Group’s proposed medication bans as a “misdirection” and said they could have the unintended effect of pushing Maryland trainers and owners to neighboring states.

Tim Ritvo, The Stronach Group’s chief operating officer for racing, did not respond to requests for comment on the reaction to his company’s medication proposal and several other issues.

The anxiety about a breakdown in the Derby will be felt again Saturday at Pimlico. Preakness day has been marred by deaths before, most recently in 2016, when one horse collapsed and died after his race and another fractured her leg and had to be euthanized.

“Our job is to do everything we can to minimize the risk,” said Maryland trainer Mike Trombetta, who will saddle Win Win Win for the Preakness. “We look at the horses daily. We do everything we possibly can to get everyone home safe. … We’re very worried about this.”

In Baltimore, meanwhile, the age-old debate over Pimlico’s future has inspired multiple layers of concern — from horsemen who depend on the track for training, to city officials who don’t want to lose a signature event, to neighborhood activists who fear what a vacant Pimlico could mean for their day-to-day lives.

“I don’t think it’s anxiety so much as different people with different opinions,” said community activist Tessa Hill-Aston, who has worked with business owners in the Park Heights corridor. “We do not want that land to become vacant for any amount of time. … It could become a desert for bad behavior.”

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Hill-Aston said she’s hopeful Pimlico will be redeveloped with an eye on benefiting surrounding neighborhoods. “The support hasn’t been there,” she said.

A Maryland Stadium Authority proposal for the site, released in December, includes potential mixed-use developments featuring a hotel, grocery store and senior housing.

The Stronach Group has said the Preakness will be run at Pimlico at least through next year, though the track operator recently closed almost 7,000 seats in the historic grandstand, citing safety concerns. State law says the Preakness can be relocated “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”

The prospect of moving the Preakness to Laurel inspires mixed reactions from the trainers and owners here to compete in the $1.5 million race. “I’m sympathetic to the owners, and I’m sympathetic to the people who would like the Preakness to stay in their town,” said Trombetta, who began his training career at Pimlico. “But the reality is that business model is failing miserably, and somebody’s got to own that and find a way to fix it.”

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