Big Brown, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, chases after the last jewel in horseracing's Triple Crown on Saturday. If he wins the Belmont Stakes in New York, he'll be the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years. But Big Brown's success is tempered by the on-track death of Eight Belles. The filly that finished second in the Derby broke two ankles just after the race ended and was put down moments later. Racing deaths have marred the "Sport of Kings" in recent years. KPCC's Molly Peterson reports California's racing industry is leading the country in making sure horses here run safely.
Molly Peterson: When Arcadia's temperature hits the mid-80s in spring, horse trainers love starting work at 5 a.m.
Dick Mandella: I mean, gallop around, just breeze him off an easy half, 49, 50, don't let him do too much. OK?
Peterson: Hall of Fame trainer Dick Mandella is from Beaumont in the Inland Empire. He's turned out more than a hundred stakes winners, including six million-dollar races in a row. He cuts a route each morning between his barns at Santa Anita and the rail just past Clockers' Corner, where he keeps his eyes and a digital stopwatch glued to horses working out.
[Sound of beeping]
Mandella: See the horse galloping with the pony over there on the other side? Mainly just keeping him with the pony to make sure he stays under control, and doesn't get all excited and take off and then injure the foot we've healed, 'cause it's not strong enough yet to take any real punishment.
[Sound of hoofs]
Peterson: Describing how a healthy horse moves is more art than science. So Mandella monitors his horses closely for little problems before they become big ones. He also watches the track.
Mandella: When horses run, the track's harrowed, but then the ones in front of them dig little holes where they run. So the next horse running behind them is stepping in some of those holes. So, if you hit wrong in one of those holes, you got a thousand-pound animal that ends up on one leg at one part of his stride, and that ankle just goes into the ground.
Peterson: Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita were each built a little differently. But they all were hard and fast, and horses broke down. Dr. Rick Arthur directs the equine medical program for the state racing board. He says Southern California's fast tracks made for fast starts.
Dr. Rick Arthur: Our jockeys come out of the gate bootin' and scootin' and our horses really go the first quarter very fast and try to hold on. That was the case 50 years ago in California racing and it's just a style that California's adopted.
Peterson: Two summers ago, seven horses went down in the first seven days of racing at Del Mar. State racing officials now require synthetic surfaces where dirt tracks had been. USC engineering professor Jean-Pierre Bardet says these new tracks replace clay and silt with softer stuff.
Jean-Pierre Bardet: They blend typical sand, or a fine sand with fibers, with little pieces of rubber which actually come from tires, and they mix it with wax. Engineered material. If you walk on these tracks here, you can feel a bit of an elasticity in them, which is actually very good for decreasing horse injuries.
Peterson: New technology comes with new kinks. This winter, Santa Anita lost 11 days of racing, and revenue, to floods from heavy rains. Bardet helped reformulate the track. He says the wax in the track's mix may have been wrong for Arcadia's warmer climate.
Bardet: If you have the wrong wax, it's the wrong minerals for the sand, then you may likely have a migration of the wax in the surface profile, and you may end up having drainage problem, because the wax will create some kind of impervious layers and would block the water from draining.
Peterson: Last week, Santa Anita sued the makers of that troublesome track. But Santa Anita's problems aside, Dr. Arthur says with synthetic tracks in place, bone injuries are down 50%, and race day injuries that require euthanasia now happen only half as often.
Arthur: California was in a bit of a hole. Our fatality rate was worse than other jurisdictions.
Peterson: Industry handicappers also say whether synthetic tracks catch on in other states could depend on the handle, or betting pool, at California tracks. If betting's up, other states might welcome the synthetic surfaces.
[Sounds of people talking and horse snorts]
Peterson: But with new tracks and new rules in California, some trainers have sent their horses to New York or Kentucky. Dick Mandella says he's not going anywhere.
Mandella: Some people get crazy, some people get curious, but you don't change anything in this game very easy.
Peterson: After the Triple Crown, horseracing's next major event is the Breeder's Cup in October. It's a full day of racing on national TV that'll feature the nation's top thoroughbreds. They'll be running at Santa Anita, on a synthetic track.