Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs is one of the few major horseracing venues in the country that has yet to sign a new equine health, safety and anti-doping pledge recently issued by one of the largest horseracing associations in the U.S.
Unveiled on Oct. 15 by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association of Lexington, Ky., the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance Pledge was developed following the collapse of the filly Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby on May 3. As Eight Belles took a cooling-off lap after finishing second to Big Brown, she stumbled and fell, breaking both front legs. Her injuries were so severe that she had to be euthanized on the track. Big Brown was also recently injured, forced into retirement after tearing off a fleshy part of his foot called the “bulb.” Eight Belles was a favorite at Oaklawn, where she won three stakes races in 2008, including a record 13-1/2 length victory in February's Martha Washington Stakes.
The NTRA pledge includes items concerning both equine health and track safety, among them: the development of uniform veterinary and equine medication rules at all tracks who sign the pledge; mandatory injury reporting, both on track and non-racing; an outright ban on steroids; additional pre- and post-race security; mandatory pre-race testing for blood-doping; installation of a break-away safety rail along the inside edge of the track, and adoption of a placement plan for retired thoroughbreds. The NTRA has announced that former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson will provide oversight of the program.
In lieu of comment, David Longinotti, assistant general manager for racing at Oaklawn, issued a prepared statement to the Arkansas Times that said: “Oaklawn and the Arkansas Racing Commission have long been at the forefront of safety and equity as evidenced by the leadership positions we have taken throughout our history on permissive medication, track surface safety and expansion of super-test to non-stakes races. We applaud the NTRA emphasis on safety. However, several weeks ago, we requested additional information on structure, governance, perpetuation, responsibility, and authority on this initiative. We are waiting for clarity on those issues.”
“We inquired on some questions about oversight and cost,” said Terry Wallace, Oaklawn track announcer and director of media relations, “and we're just waiting for some response on that. They really haven't discussed a lot of those items that are all kind of critical before you make a decision.”
Keith Chamblin, senior vice-president of the NTRA, said the deaths of high-profile horses like Eight Belles and Barbaro — who fractured a hind leg in the 2006 Preakness Stakes and was euthanized eight months later after treatment failed — are singular events that aren't really indicative of any kind of universal problems in horseracing. He added, however, that the media attention generated by the passing of Barbaro and Eight Belles did help push the industry toward making reforms. At this point, Chamblin said, Oaklawn nearly stands alone among racetracks in their reluctance to sign the NTRA Safety and Integrity Pledge.
“Virtually every major race track in North America with the exception of Oaklawn and Tampa Bay Downs and a sprink-ling of others have joined the Alliance at this point,” he said. In response to the statement issued by Oaklawn, Chamblin said: “All of those questions, we believe, are answered in the Alliance document, but we look forward to responding to their questions and we hope they'll join the Alliance in the future.”
Bill McDowell is the current president of the Arkansas Thoroughbred Breeders and Horseman's Association. His McDowell Farms is one of the largest and most successful horse breeding operations in the state, with an 80-horse stable just outside the small Dallas County town of Sparkman. McDowell said that while he's not familiar with all the particulars of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance Pledge, he is supportive of it, as he said are most of the horse breeders he knows. McDowell said that though there is a place for steroid use in horse training, some trainers resort to medical intervention too often. Overuse of steroids can lead to horses that are so muscular and fast that they can easily fracture bones and collapse joints.
“There's no doubt about it,” he said. “I think steroids have a certain use, but too many people abuse them. Certain horses need a boost if you want them to do right, but there's no way to level that off so it's fair.”
Though McDowell said that the cost of implementing some of the items in the NTRA Alliance Pledge — like the installation of a breakaway inner safety rail — likely has something to do with Oaklawn's reluctance to sign on, he expects the track to join the Alliance in the near future.
“I would think they eventually would,” he said. “The quality of the trainers that come to Oaklawn, they're going to want a similar program. Those horses will come to Oaklawn and then they'll go on to other tracks [that have signed the pledge], and they want to be able to race those other tracks.”