Safety First

Perception can become reality, Illinois state veterinarian Dr. Stephen Seabaugh said. Unless of course, it already is reality.

At the conclusion of an interesting talk about factors other than racetracks that may cause catastrophic breakdowns, Seabaugh offered up his own thoughts on the notion of what has come to be called "track bias."

In his opinion, there is no such thing.

In the opinions of many others, he is wrong.

Listening attentively were three representatives of Keeneland, which in the past few years has been "perceived" to have a dramatic inside rail bias. Horsemen and handicappers alike believe if you make the lead on the rail at Keeneland, you are home free.

Keeneland officials say no.

Seabaugh, who drove harness horses as a youth and whose background was with Standardbreds before he switched to Thoroughbreds, said legendary harness driver Stanley Dancer was the first to truly understand the importance of putting a good horse on the lead.

"On the lead is a good place to be," Seabaugh said. "If the favorite makes the lead, and gets there without extending himself too much, he should win."

Seabaugh is right, but what about a 20-1 shot from an outside post that is gunned to the lead and wins? What about horses that struggle from outside posts at Keeneland but win from any post weeks later at Churchill Downs?

Perception? Or reality?

The goal of all track superintendents is simple--track safety. Achieving that goal is not so simple.

This spring, horsemen and racing fans have been upset at what Mother Nature has thrown their way. Constant rains have caused scratches from main track races and made it almost impossible to run on turf courses. Training schedules have been interrupted and handicappers have been frustrated by short fields and races switched from one surface to another.

Turf races at places like Pimlico, Belmont, and Philly Park have been nearly nonexistent.

Imagine being the track superintendent at Sam Houston. For the last three weeks of April and all of May, rain never fell. Then the track opened for live racing in June and the Houston area received 10 inches of rain in seven days.

What's a track superintendent to do?

That part is a no-brainer. Err on the side of caution. Consider safety first and foremost.

Around the racetrack, it has always been perceived that turf racing is safer than dirt racing. Count Seabaugh among those who believed that theory. Now he calls it a myth.

With statistics gathered by his office, Seabaugh decided to examine catastrophic breakdowns at Illinois racetracks. He found that while three-quarters of such incidences on dirt happened on fast tracks, a like percentage on turf happened on courses labeled other than firm.

More interestingly, the percentage of catastrophic breakdowns on the turf was twice as high as on the dirt.

"A soft turf course is our most dangerous track condition," Seabaugh said.

What's a track superintendent to do?

Look out for the best interest of the horses.

An auto track wouldn't let a race start, or continue, if the track was deemed too wet to be seen as safe. Officials wouldn't let a soccer match or golf tournament go on if lightning were occurring.

The odds of getting hit by lightning are huge. You could probably play a 90-minute soccer game and no one would get struck. But who wants to step forward and be held responsible should it happen?

Track superintendents are held accountable--every race, every day. Surely it is rare that the actual condition of a racetrack is the major contributing factor to a catastrophic breakdown during training hours or in a live race.

But as long as horses race, one thing will not change. Not ever. Horses will break down. Catastrophic injuries will occur.

It may be hard to determine whether some things are perception or reality. Horses dying are reality.

What's a track superintendent to do?

Need I ask?

Dan Liebman is executive editor of The Blood-Horse.