Derby Weekend Celebration - by Dr. Scott Palmer

(Originally published in the May 16, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

Calvin Borel, Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr., and Mine That Bird stole the show in the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The upset victory was a Cinderella story if there ever was one. A hard-working, ex-rodeo-cowboy-turned-Thoroughbred trainer drives to Louisville from New Mexico hauling his Derby-bound horse. Borel rode Mine That Bird with a Street Sense-like determination that proved unbeatable in one of the most dramatic finishes in Derby history. Does it get any better than that?

Borel and Mind That Bird weren’t the only winners on the first Saturday in May. In the past year the Thoroughbred racing industry has been focused on reform initiatives designed to make racing safer for both horses and riders. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance has put in place an accreditation program that has stimulated racetracks to institute policies and capital improvements that have created a climate of increased awareness and dedication to the safety of our athletes.

Some have embraced and supported these initiatives. Others are skeptical of the progress made in the past year. They point to the lack of a national racing commissioner and persistent variability in rules and regulations among the 38 racing jurisdictions in the U.S. as shortfalls of this effort. Still others say all this work is a lot of talk and that nothing substantial has really changed. They say you can’t legislate morality or responsibility.

The events leading up to the running of the 2009 Kentucky Derby speak differently. 

Decisions by the connections of several Derby contenders demonstrate an increased awareness of safety issues and a commitment to “put the horse first.” Three horses were withdrawn as Derby starters in the week leading up to the race. Quality Road’s connections were unable to resolve a quarter crack. The connections of this horse could have managed him into the race. Instead they put the horse first. Win Willy was not entered due to an ankle problem, and Square Eddie was removed because of a shin injury. Most notably, the morning-line favorite in the race, I Want Revenge, was scratched in the early daylight hours of race day, not due to a fever or obvious lameness but because inflammation was found in the right front fetlock, an indication of an injury that could have placed him at risk had he raced.

Breeder and co-owner David Lanzman, trainer Jeff Mullins, and veterinarian Dr. Foster Northrop weren’t just talking a good game. They walked the walk. This is the first time in Derby history that the morning-line favorite was scratched the day of the race. They put the excitement, the hopes, and the dreams of the moment aside. They put the horse first. 

A number of heroes surround this year’s Derby. On the backside of the racetrack, people are focused on safety. They are taking greater individual responsibility for their actions. It’s true we haven’t accomplished all of our goals yet, but correcting the course of the racing industry is a massive endeavor and can’t be turned quite as quickly as we might like.

However, there is progress, and the horse is the beneficiary. Safety issues are at the forefront of racing. First you change the attitude, and the behavior follows. As long as responsible horsemen stay focused on the safety and welfare of the horse, we will continue to make progress toward our goals of reform. 

The Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the Association of Racing Commissioners International, and others have all been working to pass model rules that promote uniformity and increased safety and integrity. The AAEP’s recommendations on racehorse safety provided a veterinary viewpoint to insure that in the process of racing reform, the horse was the priority.
Horses are the better for all of these efforts.

We can all celebrate the first weekend in May. It was a remarkable weekend on a number of levels. Congratulations to Calvin Borel and the connections of Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird for two performances for the ages.

Behind the scenes, horsemen are working to improve the sport and put the horse first. We should celebrate that as well.

Dr. Scott Palmer is the owner of New Jersey Equine Clinic in Clarksburg, N.J., and is chair of the AAEP’s racing committee.


Leave a Comment:

needler in Virginia

Well said, Dr Palmer, well said. Sometimes, in the money, the silks, the money, the parties, the money, the finish line, the money, and......oh, yes...the money, the raison d'etre (did I spell that right??) for all this is a sport called HORSE racing; this isn't goldfish racing, nor NASCAR, nor fantasy football. This "sport" is called horse racing for a reason ...... because it involves horses in a big way. Remember the line "no foot, no horse"? Well now it's even simpler than that: no horse, no horse racing. You're right, Dr Palmer; the changes may not be enough soon enough, but it's damned well better than nothing, and the Derby scratches reveal how far we have come in a very short time. Let the Force be with all those in racing as they learn how to think of the only voiceless participants here; owners, breeders, trainers, jocks, backside workers, stewards, vets, pinhookers, fans ..... of us need to speak for the animals we claim to love. Their job is to run fast; OURS is to make sure they can and do ...... SAFELY.

12 May 2009 11:22 AM
Driftin Sage

And again I say....if they weren't raced at so young an age before they have fully developed their bones, there would be many less injuries.  Give them time to grow, develope stronger bones, and mature.  This is what will cut down on so many injuries and fatalities. One more year would help so much.

12 May 2009 8:13 PM
needler in Virginia

Maybe Dr Palmer can help me here. While I agree in principle with what you have said, Driftin Sage, there are some other factors at work: namely, the breeding for early speed rather than for the proverbial "Iron Horse" AND, to my way of thinking at least, the seldom-spoken-of drastic narrowing of an already small gene pool. Anyone who has studied the breeding of animals for specific purposes (in my case dogs for retrieving) knows that continued inbreeding can only accentuate faults. Those faults, once set, can never be eliminated completely unless a complete outcross can be found which doesn't destroy the consistency of the breed with which you work. After that, eliminating faults must be tracked and  the breeding of affected animals must be carefully monitored so that the fault doesn't reappear....with luck. All this, of course, is rubbish and will never happen because once a breed has become an official "breed", as has the Thoroughbred horse, the introduction of another breed, no matter how similar to the TB, will also introduce all sorts of other issues that no one wants to deal with....most of all the handicappers! Run THIS idea by them, and I daresay the local psychiatric hospitals would be overflowing with punters!!

All I'm saying, I guess, is that the TB has changed over the years, probably not for the better. Humans have created these issues, but we will never be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube. We'll have to live with alterations of all sorts that aren't a happy prospect, but the equine heroes we once knew are probably gone forever, never to return. What we must do RIGHT NOW is slow down the speeding bullet, wait to train babies until they are more physically mature, STOP 2 year old in training sales completely, and hope for the best. Might work, might not .... but it sure is worth a try. What might it hurt?? And don't anyone come at me about the dollars. I'm aware of the financial issues, and I know how the world works, but someone, sometime MUST speak out for those who can't. Money is NOT the be-all answer to everything; common sense, however, might be...............

12 May 2009 10:15 PM

To better protect our racehorses from injury, we need vets who will blow the whistle, not those who merely wait to be heard when they feel there's something positive to say... There should be no pats on the back for the racing industry or the connections of I Want Revenge or The Pamplemousse (to name a few)-both should have been mandated scratches in the first place.

12 May 2009 10:28 PM

It's true the horses are so different.  I was a hardcore racing fan as a kid, but sometime in the yrs. after Spectacular Bid, when I got well into high school and focused on going to college, I kind of got out of horseracing.  Then I got married, had a bunch of kids, etc. -- only in the past few yrs. have I come back to racing, and I have to say, the horses even LOOK different.  We never used to pray before races, "And Lord, may they all come back in one piece."  Breakdowns just didn't happen that often then.  It's sad.  And I have to say, the whole steroid/drug thing was pretty shocking to someone who last really followed racing in the 1970s.....

13 May 2009 8:14 AM
Daniel G. Fischer

I find it both arrogant and a lack of respect for Mine that Bird and what he achieved and accomplished... He was Canada's champion 2-yrold LAST year ! ... How can the powers that be and those wanna-be experts say his win was "shocking", he just flew in under the radar.

13 May 2009 12:06 PM
Mike Relva

Many so called fans are really just a bunch of crybabies for failure of giving MTB his due!

13 May 2009 7:43 PM
kris fujimoto

Just wanted to let Mr.Fischer know that MINE THAT BIRD was $516.00 payoff for a $10.00 ticket. I played him because I love his name and I loved the story behind him. I wished I owned him because I heard he has a great temper and he soooo loveable. He only lost to the grat filly Rachel because of the tight traffic at the second turn and 10 feet too short;but if Rachel were carrying the 126 lbs like the boys,our bird would have gotten her.Both horses put on historic performances and I am just thankful that all horses and riders came home safe. No winning ticket is worth a tragedy.


18 May 2009 8:07 PM

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