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The Preakness is coming, and all of horse racing holds its breath

The Preakness is coming, and all of horse racing holds its breath

BALTIMORE — It was brisk, almost bracing, on the Thursday morning before the Preakness Stakes when Mage came off the final turn, an easy gallop for a pre-9 a.m. workout at Pimlico Race Course. The dirt flew behind him. The front stretch laid out ahead. Whether he had a care in the world, he didn’t say. Certainly didn’t look like it. Beautiful, almost breathtaking animals, these thoroughbreds.

Mage won the Kentucky Derby, and when the Preakness goes off Saturday evening, he will be the heavy favorite in the second leg of the Triple Crown. But after a tragic meet at Churchill Downs that again shook a creaky sport to its core — seven dead horses over 10 days, with little connective tissue as to how or why — the more important news Saturday will be less about who won the race than whether the eight animals asked to run 1 3/16 miles all make it back to the barn in good health. A sport, for now, holds its breath.

“He behaved perfectly,” said Gustavo Delgado Jr., the Venezuelan who works closely with his father, Mage’s trainer, after the workout. “Did everything right. Then when he came back, he looked more professional today than yesterday. And on his way back to the barn he was calm and collected.”

That’s not really this sport at this moment, calm and collected. The people who own these horses and care for these horses and love these horses say time and again how well they’re cared for, and in a blanket sense, that’s true.

“They’re like their kids,” said Chase Chamberlin, half of a partnership that owns a quarter of Mage. “They really are.”

Dark week at Churchill Downs sparks questions about horse racing’s future

But would parents ask their children to participate in an activity that results in 1.25 deaths per 1,000 starts? That’s the number the Jockey Club, a trade organization, cites as the equine fatality rate for racehorses in 2022 — which is an improvement, the lowest since the organization started keeping track in 2009.

There is so much at work here, and it’s so easy for vultures to swirl when horses fall in such numbers — as they did at Santa Anita in 2019, when the California track lost 30 horses in the winter and spring and then another in the high-profile Breeders’ Cup Classic that November. But it’s hard to marry the notion that those who know the sport from the inside are open to — and in fact push for — changes to how horses are medicated and evaluated for competition when some of those same people have fought against such standards. Horse racing and the general public have a trust problem, and it’s well earned.

Consider this: When Congress brought forth a bill known as the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act in 2020 — after the spate of deaths at Santa Anita — associations and state officials in Louisiana, Texas and West Virginia sued to strike the measure down. A path to progress?

The objections were mostly around logistics — who would have power to oversee what. The optics stunk. The result is that new anti-doping and medicine control standards were delayed by more than a year. Legal haggling has them going into effect … Monday, two days after the Preakness. There is, too, this backdrop: Two of the sport’s most decorated trainers, Hall of Famers Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, were suspended by racing authorities in New York and Kentucky, respectively, for positive drug tests in their horses.

This is the best the sport has to offer, trailed by suspicion and pleas for understanding?

“Our horse’s care comes first,” Chamberlin said Thursday, and he no doubt means it.

“One breakdown is too many,” he said. “It is a very rare occurrence. I think there’s an element of, everybody needs to keep their side of the street clean. That’s one way to start.”

But what about the owner in the next stall? If the general public looks askance at statements like that — knowing horses have been drugged, knowing horses have died and knowing some within the sport have pushed back on change — who can blame them?

“We have this HISA organization that is trying to get off the ground, and our own horsemen are fighting it,” said longtime Maryland-based trainer Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. “That is such a shame. We have got to evolve with the times, and we need national organization. They have to give this a chance.”

Odds, post positions and analysis for the 2023 Preakness Stakes

There is, for now, no known link among the deaths that led up to the Kentucky Derby. But what is undeniable is that, even in good times, these horses are massive, 1,000-pound animals riding at great speeds with human beings on their backs. They are, at the same time, incredibly fragile and incapable of describing their aches and pains.

“An athlete comes off at halftime of the Super Bowl and says, ‘My ankle is killing me,’ and you can handle that as you want,” Motion said Thursday by phone. “He’s got a choice whether you treat the ankle, or he gets pulled out of the game. We have the responsibility of looking after the horses, and they can’t tell us what hurts. We have to figure that out.”

And when a horse can’t speak for itself, a vet must make the call. That’s what happened to Derby favorite Forte, trained by Pletcher, who was scratched in the hours before the race because state racing commission veterinarian Nick Smith thought the horse was affected by a bruised foot.

“We’ve all been in that situation,” Motion said. “It’s just magnified 100-fold when it’s the Kentucky Derby. I’m sure that it’s something that any other day of the week, it would have been acceptable. But with the pressure that’s on our sport on that day and the eyes of the world are watching, you have to sympathize with the veterinarians who just have to be incredibly cautious.”

So here comes the Preakness, in which Mage is the only Derby horse who will run just two short weeks later. That’s the first time in 54 years that just one horse who ran the Derby will run here. That’s caution — understandably.

“I don’t think there’s any trainer who’ll tell you he’s 100 percent sure that he’s not going to regret that kind of thing,” Delgado Jr. said. “ … But all the signs … that we wanted to see in order to take this chance are there.”

Go to any betting window at Pimlico, and that’s what you’re taking: a chance. What the sport of horse racing says it doesn’t want to do is to take chances with its athletes — equine and human — or its future. Hold your breath for the racing to be over and for long-awaited change to come.

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