In a pair of low-slung green stables manned by security guards and watched by 24-hour surveillance cameras, a pack of brawny young horses will be monitored, poked and assessed down to the blood in their veins.
The horses set to race in the 138th Preakness are to be kept under a microscope from their arrival at Pimlico Race Course until they burst from their starting gates Saturday — not only to avoid injury but also scandal.
“It’s become more sophisticated,” said David Zipf, 72, the Maryland Racing Commission’s longtime chief veterinarian for thoroughbred racing. “It’s not hay, oats and water anymore.”
This year’s Triple Crown comes at a time of heavy scrutiny for the racing industry, with renewed concerns about doping and horse safety forcing officials and insiders to take a new look at security measures.
Racing officials have been developing reforms for years. Some are being introduced for 2013; others are still being considered.
Days after winning the 2012 Preakness, I’ll Have Another trainer Doug O’Neill was given a 45-day suspension by California racing officials for running a horse with a high total carbon dioxide level in 2010. He had been fined three previous times for the same thing. He dropped his appeal of the suspension over the summer and served it beginning in August 2012.
O’Neill vigorously defended his record at the time, swearing that he never did “milkshake” (administer sodium bicarbonate to) a horse.
A tendon injury in I’ll Have Another was discovered by O’Neill on the morning before the Belmont Stakes, and the horse was withdrawn from the race and retired.
With casino revenues swelling the daily purses at Maryland’s tracks, from an average of about $160,000 when the first casino opened in 2010 to nearly $250,000 now, officials say the pressure for horses to perform — and for trainers to push them ever harder — is edging up.
“The horses have become an investment, an implement to make money,” said Zipf, who has screened Preakness horses for ailments and injuries since 1965. “And sometimes with the economy, they have to grind on them to pay their way.”
More catastrophic injuries to horses have also been documented in Maryland, New York and other states.
Twenty-one horses were euthanized last year at Pimlico and Laurel Park, Maryland’s other thoroughbred racetrack, up from 10 in 2011. About 15 have been euthanized so far this year, according to Mike Hopkins, the executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission.
Hopkins said the problems are being taken seriously by the industry.
“The last thing the racing industry wants is to have a black cloud shadowing over it,” he said…