by John Tedesco
EXPRESS-NEWS STAFF WRITER
Miss Pretty Promises collapsed near the finish line and struggled to rise on her shattered forelegs.
A pickup rushed to the crippled racehorse. Two men sprang out and shielded the filly from the crowd with a crinkled tarp as the vet went to work.
It was April 28 — opening night for live racing at Retama Park. In the
stands, many people had gasped when horse No. 4 with the crisp yellow silks tumbled in front of them on the dirt track.
A covered trailer soon whisked the concealed horse away and onlookers clapped and cheered, as if they were rooting for a football player who was limping bravely off the field.
But Miss Pretty Promises never would run again.
Behind the tarp, Dr. Stewart Marsh had taken one look at the grotesquely twisted legs and saw there was no hope of recovery.
With the same hands he had used to check racehorses for signs of
inflammation hours earlier, Marsh inserted a syringe into the filly’s jugular vein and injected a drug to stop the struggling. He then administered a barbiturate to euthanize the horse.
“Both front legs were broken,” Marsh said minutes later, shaking his head as he walked off the track.
There’s no way to predict when that will happen, he said, and little hope the horse could have healed without aggravating the injury and suffering more.
Miss Pretty Promises is one of hundreds of racehorses in Texas that lose a life-or-death gamble the public seldom sees.
At the state’s five licensed tracks, Marsh and other veterinarians with the Texas Racing Commission have euthanized or documented the deaths of 300 horses in the past five years, usually after the animals broke ankles, legs or even spinal cords during races, according to the agency’s database of horse injuries obtained by the San Antonio Express-News.
Vets who scratched injured horses from races and euthanized the grievously injured compiled the database, which never has been analyzed by outsiders.
While thousands of horses compete safely in Texas, the records reveal an ugly side to a moribund industry struggling to fill empty seats.
Even elite horses are at risk. At the Preakness Stakes on Saturday in
Baltimore, favored thoroughbred Barbaro took a bad step at the beginning of the race and fractured his right hind ankle. By 7:30 p.m., Barbaro was being taken to Pennsylvania for an operation vets hoped would save his life, according to the Washington Post.
The injuries can be just as devastating in the lower-stakes world of Texas racing, far from the worldwide spectacle of wealthy owners sipping mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby. Many trainers and owners have concluded the risk isn’t worth the reward, and are fleeing Texas for richer purses in other states.
As attendance in Texas has dropped — from 1.6 million patrons at live races in 2000 to 1.2 million last year — purses have fallen as well.
Tony Lostracco, a horse owner from Weimar, said declining purses encourage owners to train and race horses at a younger age to make their investment pay off.
“They want to push these little babies,” said Lostracco, whose quarter
horse, Doctor Passmore, competed at Retama on opening night. “If you push horses before they’re ready, they will break down.”
But beginning in 2003, injury rates began falling in Texas. A possible
explanation is that regulators reduced the number of race days to ease the burden on the animals.
Speaking at an August 2001 racing commission board meeting, Mike Burleson, then-deputy director of racing, said vets were finding evidence that horses were being over-raced.
“We’re seeing more tired, sore horses that are possibly increasingly
susceptible to injury,” Burleson told racing commissioners. “Therefore, our conclusion is that a slight decrease in racing dates will give these horses an opportunity to rest.”
Five years ago, about 15 horses per 1,000 were killed or seriously injured in Texas. Last year, that rate had dropped by nearly half.
Besides the deaths, vets documented 2,000 scrapes and bruises, and 550 pulled tendons, broken bones and other serious injuries that weren’t immediately life-threatening.
The racing commission vets work only at the tracks on race days; they might not know if racehorses come to the track with previous injuries.
Comparing Texas to other venues is difficult. Racing commissions in other states track the health of racehorses differently — or not at all.
Some horses that are seriously injured and retire will start a new life as
an adopted horse of a loving family, or breed future racehorses if they had successful careers.
The unlucky horses, according to activists and a 2001 study by researchers at Colorado State University, will be shipped to a slaughterhouse to be processed for meat. Two slaughterhouses are in Texas, not far from the Lone Star Track near Dallas.
The 300 deaths documented by racing commission vets could be the tip of the iceberg, since those are only the animals killed on race days, activists say.
“For thousands of racehorses that are bred, very few of them ever qualify to race,” said Jerry Finch, president of Habitat for Horses, a nonprofit group near Houston. “So there’s a number of them that never get to the racetrack, and many of them are slaughtered.”
Fans admire the grace and power of racehorses. They gather like groupies at paddock areas to watch grooms and trainers saddle the majestic animals and prepare them to race.
Patrons are spared the sight of a crippled horse being injected with drugs to stop its breathing. They don’t witness an unwanted horse being shipped to a slaughterhouse.
“There’s a whole ugly side to this that we just don’t see,” said Liz Ross, a director with the Doris Day Animal League in Washington who campaigns against horses being slaughtered.
Racing officials say the injuries and deaths are tragic but represent a
fraction of all horses that safely compete in Texas.
The screens used to conceal horses euthanized on tracks aren’t intended to deceive the audience, said Jean Cook, a racing commission spokeswoman.
The purpose is to protect the patrons, the horse, and the vet stuck with a difficult task, Cook said.
Marsh, the racing commission’s top vet, acknowledged the sport’s
unpredictable nature always will cause some horses to die behind a tarp.
“It’s part of racing,” Marsh said. “I don’t think it’s preventable.”
The risk for racehorses is whether they’ll come to a sad end. Each season, about one in 280 Texas horses doesn’t beat the odds.
On Aug. 2, 2003, a young quarter horse named Lovetostrawfly, owned by country singer Lyle Lovett, fell during the 10th race at Sam Houston Race Park. Blood oozed from the horse’s ear, and she couldn’t stand on her limp hind legs — she had broken her back.
A veterinarian euthanized the 3-year-old horse on the track.
The sport is dangerous for jockeys, too. But horses don’t heal like people. A broken leg that might put a jockey in a hospital for a week might be a death sentence for a horse.
“The problem with healing the horse, with the weight off the bad leg, the other leg often suffers and flounders,” Marsh said.
Blood doesn’t circulate well in the horse’s lower legs, and when a bad break ruptures blood vessels, gangrene can set in.
Maimed horses could suffer for weeks and, in the end, have to be put down.
To spare horses that fate, Marsh and his colleagues euthanize many on the spot.
At Retama Park near San Antonio, a horse died, on average, every six days during the park’s 67-day season last year.
What frustrates Marsh is that in many cases, horses that appear perfectly healthy end up snapping a leg on the track.
Horses like Miss Pretty Promises.
On the outskirts of San Antonio during a gusty spring afternoon, storm
clouds churned in the sky as Retama Park prepared to open its gates for the opening night of live racing.
At the stables, Marsh went to work. He and another racing commission vet, Gary Frakes, roamed from stall to stall examining all of the hundred quarter horses scheduled to race that day.
Frakes knelt beneath a 3-year-old horse named GP Braveheart and slid his hand along the forelegs for signs of inflammation. The horse’s trainer then grabbed a harness and led the horse at a trot along a hay-strewn path as the vets looked for signs of lameness.
“The big thing I look for is a head bob,” said Marsh, 61, who seemed at home in the stables with his cowboy hat, dusty boots and colossal belt buckle. Stitched on his checkered shirt was the Ralph Lauren brand of a horse and rider.
A horse that bobs its head probably is hurt somewhere, Marsh said, and warrants a closer look.
An injured horse is scratched from the race and barred from returning until a trainer can demonstrate the horse has improved.
“This is a very brief exam,” Marsh acknowledged. But the vets are finding all but the most minor injuries, he insisted.
Although racehorses ripple with muscle, they travel about 35 mph on spindly legs.
Marsh walked up to a compact white horse whose veins popped out of its haunches like a bodybuilder’s. He motioned at the knees.
“The majority of catastrophic injuries happen from here down,” Marsh said.
The bones in the knees and ankles of some horses fracture, perhaps from overwork, perhaps from simple bad luck of landing a hoof wrong.
Once that happens, there is little hope a horse will recover, especially if the bone is exposed and open to infection.
Racing commission vets decide whether an injured horse has a chance to live or will be euthanized.
“It’s extremely hard,” Marsh said. “Some of the injuries are worse than
others, like when the bone comes through the whole skin and the horse is walking on a stump of bone. That’s very distressing.”
But according to the racing commission’s data, the horses that die often showed no signs of a problem. Their first and only injury noticed by a racing commission vet was so serious they had to be put to sleep.
“The catastrophic injuries are hard to figure out a rhyme or reason to,”
Marsh said. “If I could do it, I’d certainly not let those horses race that
A horse falls
The front gates opened and Retama quickly filled with the odd assortment of hard-core gamblers and laughing youngsters.
Old-timers scrutinized racing forms as children scampered near the track playing tag.
As the evening wore on, Longshot the Horse, the park’s mascot, led a gaggle of kids in a spontaneous dance interpretation of “YMCA” by the Village People.
It was a day of quarter horse races — 350 yards at a full sprint. The speedy horses dart the length of more than three football fields in less time than a 30-second TV commercial.
Many of the horses were young, untried and running for meager purses. Early on, one horse was scratched from a race. Officials were worried about signs of unruliness in Sixes Special Lad.
Then the fifth race was delayed when Jo Jo’s Leavin, a sorrel filly, became fidgety in the gate and flipped over. Marsh was on hand and said the horse couldn’t race.
Jo Jo’s Leavin looked fine but Marsh said he had to be cautious. The vet was relaxed, even chipper. So far, not one horse was seriously injured. Things were going well.
Then it was time for the sixth race, a trial run with a $2,500 purse.
The gates opened and a wall of horses launched into full gallop. As they hurtled toward the finish line within better view of the stands, some in the crowd thought horse No. 4, Miss Pretty Promises, was having trouble.
It was the first race for the 2-year-old quarter horse and she lagged
behind. Jockey Salvador Perez whipped the animal to squeeze more speed out of her. Horse and rider crossed the finish line in seventh place.
Miss Pretty Promises suddenly tumbled. The horse thudded into the soft dirt and flipped over, throwing Perez.
Onlookers could see at least one of the horse’s forelegs was broken and twisted at a sickening angle. Miss Pretty Promises trembled as she tried standing on healthy hind legs and useless front legs. In an awkward kneeling position, her nose was buried in the dirt.
The ambulance for Perez arrived first. A racing commission spokesperson said the jockey was uninjured and raced later in the evening.
Dr. Marsh and racetrack workers pulled up in the park’s “chase” vehicle, a pickup.
The tarp was unveiled. The minutes dragged by.
At trackside, Christa Betzing, a 23-year-old student from the University of Texas at San Antonio, waited anxiously. She hoped the horse was OK. Her friends kept needling her, saying Miss Pretty Promises probably was going to die.
When told by a reporter that a vet likely was putting the horse down, she was shocked.
“They have to put them to sleep?” Betzing said. “You want to know how I feel about that? I feel absolutely horrible.”
Her friends Walter Moore and Mike Pierce took the news in stride. It’s an animal, they said, and people euthanize animals all the time.
But the three college students had a ringside seat to Miss Pretty Promises’ final moments, and even the guys admitted it was a bad way to go.
“I can’t get that image out of my head,” Betzing said. “It’s very sad,
seeing an animal in so much pain.”
Nearby, Bryan Hellyer, 38, and Christy Fischer, 31, suspected the horse behind the tarp wasn’t going to live. They fumed when a reporter confirmed their fears.
Hellyer accused racing officials of hiding the truth.
“People don’t understand what’s going on here,” Hellyer said. “It’s a lot of fun to watch the horses run. But when they run and that happens, no one knows. They don’t want us to know.”
As the euthanized horse was carted away in a covered trailer, many in the crowd applauded and cheered. Children went back to playing games.
Marsh walked away subdued.
He and Frakes had signed off on Miss Pretty Promises hours earlier, Marsh recalled. The horse looked fine.
Then came the accident, and death at the end of a needle. Marsh said he’d never get used to it, even after 10 years as a racing commission vet.
The old horse doctor trudged toward the paddock. It was time to check a group of horses for the next race.
jtedesco @ express-news.net