Horse racing's grand event takes place this weekend at Santa Anita, but along with all the parties, celebrations and spectacular competition this year comes a fair share of nail-biting.
The Breeders' Cup is Friday and Saturday at Southern California's Santa Anita Park, the same track that has suffered an unusually high number of equine fatalities since December, prompting PETA protests and some industry nervousness about the two-day event.
Meanwhile, with the Breeders' Cup returning to Keeneland next year, the local race course just completed its Fall Meet that included five fatalities, bringing the total for the year to nine. The breakdowns came despite efforts by the track to improve its safety standards and process.
"First and foremost we were disappointed, to put it mildly, that we had the breakdowns that we did," Vince Gabbert, Keeneland's vice president and chief operating officer, said Wednesday. "In context, we had almost 23,000 horses over the track in the month of October, with a little over 1,500 starters. And while one is too many, we've still got work to do."
Three of those five fatalities happened on the turf course. Two happened on the main dirt track, which underwent a "rehabilitation" process before the meet. Gabbert said Keeneland was pleased with the condition of the track and continued to do testing of the surface throughout the month.
"We feel like we've improved our process significantly," Gabbert said. "I can tell you we even learned a lot going through the meet."
Santa Anita has suffered 36 equine fatalities since last December. The alarming number forced a suspension of racing in March and prompted the track's owner, the Stronach Group, to introduce a number of reforms with regard to track safety and medications. The number of fatalities has slowed, but not ceased.
"As a guy that rode them for many, many years, and now speaks to them via television, safety is always on my mind with riders and horses," former jockey and current NBC analyst Jerry Bailey said Tuesday. "And it is important that we get through this injury-free. But look, this is another form of athletics. Athletics in general come with injury. Unfortunately for horses, they can't recover like human beings, and while most of the injuries in horse racing are not catastrophic and horses recover from them, usually race again, but almost always live, there are certain ones that are catastrophic."
Bailey's NBC colleague, Randy Moss, argued Tuesday that being such a small sample size, with just two days of racing, what happens at the Breeders' Cup, positive or negative, might not be indicative of what's happening with the sport overall.
"This is a long-term process, right," Moss said. "I know the eyes of the world are on Santa Anita and are on the Breeders' Cup, and it's obviously critically important for the Breeders' Cup that they get through this weekend without an incident, but an incident-free weekend doesn't necessarily mean that the reforms are working, and an injury this weekend doesn't necessarily mean that the reforms aren't working."
Gabbert agreed, and noted there are many safety and medication proposals that have yet to be accepted and implemented.
"One of the challenges with us not having a national governing body is we have to deal with jurisdiction to jurisdiction," he said. "California has the opportunity, from its standpoint, to do a lot more by house rule. New York does, as well. We actually have petitioned the (Kentucky) Race Commission to push them and partner with them when we can on moving some of these reforms forward."
Still, differences of opinion exist. Gabbert pointed out that a proposal to phase down the use of Lasix, something that had been agreed upon by most entities, was recently voted down by the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council.
"It was the veterinarians on that committee that voted it down," Gabbert said. "So part of the challenge as we go through this is that all the stakeholders have to be in this together."
And all will be watching this weekend, hoping for an exciting and, most of all, safe Breeders' Cup.