How We Failed Barbaro

By Laura Hillenbrand
Oxford Prince died in front of me, a breath before the finish line at Timonium, some 25 years ago. His leg had broken, sending him into a ghastly tumble, his jockey kissing off the ground like a stone on a still pond. When the vet came, the colt lifted his leg obediently, and the cannon bone swung from its middle as if hinged. The needle came quickly, and Oxford Prince sank to the dirt and was gone.

What I had seen came as an explosion. I was a kid at the time, and though I knew of Ruffian's death, I thought this kind of horror was a great rarity. I assumed that such a wrenching event would be huge news, spurring the soul-searching and reform that you see when an athlete dies in any other sport. But nothing happened. There was a sodden weight in the air, a quiet grief, yet the card proceeded with no comment, only a few remarks of "that's racing." I sat against the rail and cried.

On Preakness day, as I watched Barbaro standing on the track, turning his ruined leg in plaintive circles, I thought of that day at Timonium. Now, as then, there is a stricken horse whose sport failed to prevent his injury. There is anguish, shibboleths of "that's racing," and in a situation that screams for sweeping action to stop this from happening again, the familiar passive resignation. It was the same for Timely Writer, Go for Wand, Prairie Bayou, and so many others. We love and mourn our horses, yet our hands are largely idle.

We speak of catastrophic breakdowns as if they are blue-moon anomalies. They are anything but. The most comprehensive investigation of breakdowns, the Equine Racing Injury Reporting System, found a rate of 1.6 fatalities in every 1,000 starts. Other studies have found almost identical results.

By this measure, every horse has a one in 624 chance of dying in each race. If that statistic held true for the 469,644 individual performances in the United States and Canada last year, 753 horses died in races in 2005. That's more than two per day. Untold more died in training; while there is scant information on training deaths in America, horses in a Japanese study suffered more fractures in training than in racing. The fate of jockeys follows. Virtually every year, at least one jockey is killed as a result of a horse's breakdown. Others are paralyzed or severely injured.

A comparison to the National Football League puts this death rate into perspective. Every week, each of 32 teams fields between 40 and 47 players; at minimum, 1,280 players produce 20,480 performances per 16-game regular season. Even if every team fielded only the minimum number of men, if football players died at the same rate as racehorses, 33 players -- more than two per week -- would die in the regular season alone. That the NFL would tolerate such a thing is inconceivable, yet racing does just that.

This is not to say that we do nothing for our horses. No athletes in any sport are as closely monitored for soundness, as the system of multiple pre-race veterinary inspections attests. And we have made some promising, albeit piecemeal, efforts to study breakdowns. This is admirable, but the statistics demonstrate emphatically that we aren't doing nearly enough.

NASCAR offers a model that the industry ought to emulate. When Dale Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR launched an exhaustive safety research campaign, then implemented changes with alacrity, installing new head restraints, shock-absorbing track walls, crash data recorders, and reconfigured cockpits. Earnhardt's death was NASCAR's fourth in nine months; in the ensuing five years, not one driver has died.

In breakdowns, racing has a massive, deadly serious problem, and we all know it. The Thoroughbred industry has a moral obligation to horses and jockeys to pursue solutions on a grand scale and with the utmost urgency. We must summon the best minds, create a truly comprehensive, uniform injury reporting system, and fund a slew of controlled studies. Most importantly, we must be willing to make the difficult choices that follow.

We need to do this not only for Barbaro, but for the hundreds of Oxford Princes who pay for our ignorance and inaction with their lives.

Laura Hillenbrand is the Eclipse Award-winning author of Seabiscuit

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