Saturday, May. 18, 2024

Walking The Line Between Nurture And Risk

The National Steeplechase Association has improved conditions for horses at most of its meets, but there’s still much work to be done in preventing equine fatalities.
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The National Steeplechase Association has improved conditions for horses at most of its meets, but there’s still much work to be done in preventing equine fatalities.

They appear in the steeplechase record book, at the bottom of the race chart, a name followed by a line of horizontal dashes. That means the horse failed to complete the course. Sometimes they pull up, other times they fall, and occasionally they die. In 2007, 516 individual horses started in 201 U.S. steeplechase races. Eight horses died. But, that’s my count—the sport doesn’t record the number.

There’s no official number of fatalities or injuries. One group, led by veterinarians Reynolds Cowles, Willie McCormick, Nat White and horseman Don Yovanovich, tabulate injuries and fatalities but only from race meets when a veterinarian sends a report. Not all race meets participate, rendering the study incomplete and unofficial.

The ones who didn’t make it in 2007—Racey Dreamer, Biblos, Iron County Xmas, The Next Man, Ten Cents A Shine, Ready To Rock, Class Vantage, Noblest. There’s bound to be others that slipped past my count. Some say it doesn’t seem like that many. Eight horses out of 516.

But it only takes one. One that sticks with you, one that makes you question why you participate—ride, own, train or simply watch—in a horse sport that can be so destructive.

For me, it was Bewray, a 10-year-old trier who fell at the last fence at Morven Park (Va.). My fault. That was the one that got me. I rode more than 1,000 races and can recite the names of eight horses who died on the track. Bewray comes to mind first.

For Bill Price, it was Biblos. Price directs the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase, a one-day affair held each spring in Charlotte, N.C. In April, Price was trying to accomplish his ultimate victory—win a race with a horse he owns, at his race meet.

An Argentine-bred trained and ridden by Arch Kingsley, Biblos broke his leg, not over a jump but galloping in between hurdles. It happened right there in front of Price, his partners in the horse, his fans who came to his race meet to see the beauty of the sport. Not the death.

“Normally, it does not happen between the fences. It’s usually over the fence or within a few steps of the fence,” Price said. “The good news/bad news was that all of the owners were there. The good news/bad news was the trainer was also the jockey. The horse broke his leg. It’s difficult. I was zombied.”

Price began owning steeplechase horses 13 years ago. He started with a claimer named Break Clean, who won everything. Since then, Price has dabbled in solo ownership and in partnerships and unveiled the Charlotte Steeplechase in 1995. Biblos became the second horse to die at Price’s meet.

“Statistically that’s pretty good, but it doesn’t make it much easier. I don’t want to say it’s part of the sport, because it’s more than that,” Price said. “They give all for our pleasure. We ask them to do things, and they do it because they’re bred to do it, because they love to do it. You hope you’ve given the horse an environment where significant breakdown doesn’t occur and if it does that you’re in a position to do all you can.”

Steeplechase horsemen become a steely breed. They either learn this or get out. They walk the line between nurture and risk every time they put a saddle on a horse. If they’re in it long enough, one of their charges won’t come home.

There was no choice with Biblos. He was euthanized immediately.

“The partnership kept us together. We shared it. We all cried together and rallied around ourselves. If we were out there alone, maybe it would have been hard to keep doing it and live with it,” Price said.

“I’m glad Arch was there. Horses know their handlers, and he knew Arch and Arch knew the horse,” Price continued. “He was in as much shock as the horse was, but he stayed there. He showed compassion. We got letters of sympathy, and we wouldn’t have gotten that without Arch’s involvement and the owners’ involvement.”

It’s not taken lightly, and it’s not taken alone. The compassion comes from being there.

“It’s a personal thing. One strength of the sport is the people,” Price said. “We got a lot of calls from people who weren’t connected to the horse. That’s what you’re glad for when things do go bad.”

The Need For Data

But, why do things go bad?

That’s the question that can’t get answered. People walk away from a race meet and can’t understand why this happens. Yes, it’s part of the sport. But, that’s not an answer. Is there anything that can be done? Most people say no, it happens. Some say, it shouldn’t happen as often. I say, we should at least know how often it happens and try to figure out why it happens.

The National Fence, the standardized hurdle used at most meets, was created in 1974 and hasn’t seen a significant update since. Wear and tear on the fences can cause inconsistencies from week to week.

Nearly all race meets have a veterinary check before the horse runs, but it’s not mandatory for every race meet. The sport doesn’t keep an official record of fatalities or injuries, and necropsies are rarely performed. Veterinary care at the races has improved but can be inconsistent. There isn’t a standard horse ambulance that each meet has to use; most utilize the best they can afford, but not all do.

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There have never been official records kept on the number of falls or fatalities at individual fences, courses, or in what types of races and in what type of ground conditions. Many times the official charts kept by the National Steeplechase Association include mistakes regarding falls, lost riders and other factual data.
So is there work to be done? Yes.

Cowles knows this as well as anyone. After seeing four horses euthanized at a point-to-point, the Virginia-based veterinarian joined with McCormick, Yovanovich and White to collect data regarding injuries and fatalities at Virginia Steeplechase Association meets. They began in 1996 and have accumulated data for more than a decade, gradually branching out to meets outside Virginia.

“A group of horsemen and veterinarians sat down and said, ‘We need to do something,’ ” Cowles said. “The goal is prevention. That’s the reason we started this. It’s an evolving process, and we’ll never accomplish the degrees we want. But as long as we can make progress to protect the horse, that protects the sport, the owner, and the trainer, everybody else. When we started there was resistance just like anything else to do with horses and traditions, the attitude that it was just part of the game. But that’s not an acceptable attitude in today’s world, and it shouldn’t be.”

Most of the resistance has disappeared as people have accepted that the study is to help the horse. Most horsemen and race meet directors cooperate and appreciate the effort. Empirically, Coles sees fewer injuries and fatalities, while the numbers don’t necessarily back this up.

The study shows that in 2007, there were 5.07 breakdowns and 6.34 fatalities per 1,000 starters. In 2006, there were 4.22 breakdowns and 5.06 fatalities per 1,000 starts. In 2005, there were 1.06 breakdowns and 2.11 fatalities per 1,000 starts. In 2004, there were 2.72 breakdowns and 3.62 fatalities per 1,000 starters. From 1996 to 2000, there were 3.4 breakdowns and 3.4 fatalities per 1,000 starters.

Ultimately the study is as much about trying to figure out what causes falls, injuries and breakdowns as it is to simply track and number them. When the data from the five-year study was analyzed, firm and deep going were significantly associated with an increased risk of breakdowns. 

Some race meets are missing, and most major track racing isn’t included—hence the numbers don’t match my completely unofficial numbers. Another flaw is that there are no Monday morning records (horses who broke down or died after race day), all problems acknowledged by the group.

For the record, I’m awed by the group’s stick-to-it-iveness and effort to help a sport that desperately needs to lessen the attrition rate and improve its public image.

 “Like any situation, if you don’t know the baseline you don’t know what the variables can be. The initial data was to come up with a baseline: what is the injury rate, what is the fatality rate? We knew what had been reported in flat racing and the conventional wisdom was that ours was higher than that, but is that really true?” Cowles said.

“The original study from 1996 to 2000 was a good initial look, but it was limited,” he added. “We’ve refined it and tried to keep expanding it. We have most of the meets reporting, but it’s a work in progress to get all the meets to report.”

When The Worst Happens

Through the National Steeplechase Foundation, the NSA has helped fund the data collection and tabulation in an effort to maintain continuity for a year-to-year comparison. The variables are endless, and there are too many gaps in data collection to consider these numbers with impunity.

But it’s safe to say that the number of injuries and fatalities are higher in steeplechasing than flat racing. It’s also safe to say the numbers are not going down. Consider the study a valiant effort, a needed start and something to grow on, but unfortunately it’s not an all-encompassing solution for steeplechasing.

Matt McCarron rode two of the horses who died in 2007. The two horses represented the spectrum of seasoning; Racey Dreamer was an older, more experienced horse running in a Grade I steeplechase at Keeneland (Ky.). Ready To Rock was making his first start over jumps in a maiden race at Colonial Downs (Va.). Both made mistakes that cost them their lives.

“Watching the replay of Racey Dreamer, he over-reached at the fence before and then came off the bridle in a matter of strides. I think he might have done some damage to something there. When the next fence came up, he made a mistake and came down wrong,” McCarron said.

“Ready To Rock made a green mistake. A horse clobbered the fence in front of him, and he took his mind off the fence. He got distracted and stepped into the fence. The way they landed—they hit the fence and it made them susceptible to landing awkwardly.”

Both broke their shoulders.

In 15 years as a jockey—in 1,013 rides—McCarron claims to have been aboard four horses who died from injuries on the track. Two suffered broken shoulders, one died from heart failure and another broke down in both front legs and had to be euthanized later.

“It’s awful when it happens,” McCarron said. “It’s something that doesn’t typically happen, but it does happen. Do we break down more horses, yeah, bowed tendons and that kind of stuff, but do we recycle them and bring them back, yes. Do they have a better quality of life in steeplechasing, yes.”

The NSA has weathered fatalities to some of the greats like Warm Spell in the 1994 Colonial Cup (S.C.) and Rowdy Irishman in the 2001 Iroquois (Tenn.) and public injuries like Flatterer in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup (Md.). It’s sobering to read down the sport’s leading earners and see ill-fated stars Yaw, Master McGrath, Summer Colony, Double Reefed, Circuit Bar—horses who died from jumping mistakes on the track.

For a representative of the NSA, a fatality on course, especially at the major tracks, makes the worst public relations scenario possible. Race meet directors live in fear of it. Sponsors work in an even more precarious situation; imagine sponsoring a race and a horse dying in your race.

More Proactive

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NSA board member Dwight Hall is the chairman of the Stewards’ Advisory and Safety committees and works directly with the Iroquois meet. A former amateur rider, Hall has played a big part in the changes to course management in recent years. Irrigation has started to become the norm, rather than the exception, and a course inspection program was developed to, at least, tell horsemen about problems at individual courses.

“We’ve tried to get uniformity in the courses. We started a turf inspection program, which encouraged the race meets to bring their courses to a higher level, and they’ve dramatically improved. That translates to a better surface and a safer surface for the horses and jockeys,” Hall said.

“We started a medical protocol for the riders. We’re talking about eliminating toe grabs,” he added. “We did a study of portable fences. All those things are proactive; it’s a much more proactive stance than ever before.”

The NSA created a new role recently with the promotion of Barry Watson as a safety advisor. A former trainer and jockey, Watson will begin his 11th season as a starter this spring. His role expanded into walking courses during the week of competition and corresponding with the stewards, jockeys, horsemen and race meet directors about safety issues and trying to monitor the ins and outs of the traveling circus that is steeplechasing.

“We started sending Barry to the meets days before they run to do a safety check, making sure the rolls are tied down, checking beacons, everything,” Hall said. “In the past some of those things couldn’t be fixed on race day so that’s helped.”

Watson goes over a checklist on a meet-to-meet, week-to-week basis. Fence placement, beacon construction, quality and compaction of ground, type of grass, wing angles—anything and everything. When he sees something that needs fixing, he communicates it to the meet director, and it’s usually fixed by race day.

“It’s been a really, really good thing,” Watson said. “It’s been rewarding and frustrating. I’m not a guy who likes controversy. I don’t like getting in someone’s face and pointing out what’s wrong, which is probably a good thing, so I try to do things that won’t upset people. It feels as though I’ve done some good stuff, but it’s like starting—it’s not a matter of if you’re going to make a mistake, it’s when you’re going to overlook something. If and when that happens, I hope it’s something that doesn’t cause a big problem.”

Watson concluded a study of portable timber fences in 2006-07, and the National Steeplechase Foundation has sent him to England the past two winters to try to glean from their racing product. In England, steeplechasing thrives as an industry, accountable to the wagering public and to the deep ranks of horsemen who live, work and breathe steeplechasing.

Watson has bridged an important gap between the jockeys and the NSA office—he talks jockey—which has helped. He’s at the races as starter, but he’s there to answer questions and solve problems as they relate to the safety of the course as well.

“It’s incredible how much more advanced it is. The courses are so much better; the officiating is so much better,” Watson said. “When I was riding, we just showed up and rode and assumed everything was the way it was supposed to be. Last year, I went to every meet to make sure things were the way they were supposed to be. And there are certain things you just can’t budge on. I’ve gotten good feedback from SOTA [Steeplechase Owners and Trainers Association], the riders and the NSA board.”

Improving Standards

Hall, like Watson, has seen the entire arc. He was there when the Iroquois was restricted to amateur riders (he was one of them) and ran over a course that looked like something from a John Wayne Western.

“I just saw a picture from the Iroquois in 1985. It was so hard and so dusty you could hardly see the horses in the picture. We spent six figures on our racecourse to make it as safe as we can with irrigation, safe run-arounds at the fences, whatever needed to be done,” Hall said.

“The NSA has put together the turf inspection program, professional stewards, expanding Barry’s role,” he added. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve and be proactive, and hopefully that filters down to the race committee chairman so they have a safer course, a safer race meet.”

Slowly but surely, the sport has improved the quality of its courses and has recognized the need for better safety measures. But, ultimately, it’s up to the individual race meets to develop a course that meets safety standards and protocol. The NSA is the governing body, but there is a natural disconnect between the office and the meets, and that disconnect leads to oversights, which have hurt the sport.

Flat tracks race day after day over the same, uniform course. It’s fairly easy to monitor, study and most importantly act on safety issues and standards. In steeplechasing, the horses show up once a year and then it’s usually over until they come back again the next year.

Ultimately, the onus is on the jockeys.

“It’s never a thought in my mind when I ride; it can’t be,” McCarron said. “They’re obstacles, and sometimes they cause catastrophic injuries. To prevent that is hard. It’s like what [trainer] Neil Morris always says, ‘You have to jump the jumps.’ ”

Sean Clancy

NOTE: No horses or riders were seriously injured in these photographs.



Former champion steeplechasing jockey Sean Clancy is the editor and publisher of ST Publishing and the author of Barbaro: The Horse Who Captured America’s Heart. He also freelances for The Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred and The Blood-Horse.

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