High hopes that the new footing at Grants Pass Downs racetrack might save horses' lives were dashed when two thoroughbreds suffered fatal injuries during a single race on opening weekend.
"We're all sick about it," said Randy Evers, executive director of the Oregon Racing Commission.
The past two abbreviated racing seasons at Grants Pass Downs resulted in six dead horses, several injured jockeys and myriad complaints about the track's footing.
The commission in August 2009 ordered the track to replace its racing surface. The $225,000, three-phase resurfacing project stripped 5,000 tons of old dirt, created a new track foundation and drainage system and added a new properly sloped racing surface.
"I talked to exercise riders, trainers, jockeys and track officials. All the information we have is that the track is in excellent condition," Evans said.
But on Saturday track veterinarians euthanized two horses who broke down in non-related incidents during the eighth race, said Evers, adding he had reviewed tapes of the race and conferred with track officials.
Sandita, a 5-year-old gelding, broke his right front ankle. Timely Brush, an 8-year-old stallion running near the rear of the pack, broke his left rear femur, he said.
"No matter what we do, there are going to be a certain amount of catastrophic injuries," Evers said.
Brenda Estes, 37, has eight horses in training at Grants Pass Downs. Fighting back tears, Estes said trainers never get used to losing horses.
But the track's surface should not be blamed for the recent injuries, she said.
"It's definitely not the track," Estes said. "I've been training on this track all winter."
The old footing was full of clay and silt. Horses were "slipping and sliding," she said. The new footing is sandy loam. It drains better and is easier on the horses' bodies, Estes said.
George Davis, 62, has four thoroughbreds racing this season. Davis has been training at Grants Pass Downs for 15 years. He agrees with Estes that the new footing is a major improvement.
"This is the best this track has been in a long time," Davis said. "It's really nice now."
One problem that cannot be fixed with new footing is the length of the track. Grants Pass Downs is a half-mile track, half the size of Portland Meadows' mile-long track. The new resurfacing included properly graded slopes on the track's straightaways and turns. But a shorter track inevitably means tighter turns and more stress on the horses' tendons, ligaments and bones, said Davis.
"These short bull-ring tracks mean they have to corner fast and hard," said Davis. "They have to switch leads in the turns, and switch again coming out of the turns. A lot of times they can misstep and that can cause injuries."
Speed, fatigue and hidden injuries contribute to life-ending accidents, Estes said.
"A lot of these horses have been running for a long time," she said. "They may have (an underlying physical) problem. And that can cause a freak accident."
Stacy Katler, the racing commission's senior veterinarian, is attending Grants Pass Downs meets this season, Evers said. Katler agreed with the local track veterinarian that Timely Brush and Sandita sustained life-ending injuries Saturday and should be humanely destroyed, he said.
Horses are bred for racing and love to run, Estes said. But they can be fragile creatures and their basic anatomy puts them at risk, she added.
"God made these 1,000- to 1,200-pound animals not quite right," Estes said. "They've got a great big body and these little twigs for legs. These horses can just step wrong and something's going to break."
Evers and Davis agreed. Horses racing at smaller tracks for $2,000 purses are likely to have slipped down the rungs of racing due to injury or age.
"You don't get A-1 horses here," said Davis. "It they come here, chances are they have something going on."
Horses may be given phenylbutazone, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, and lasix, a drug used to treat excessive fluid accumulation — in regulated doses. Bute is legal 24 hours prior to a race; lasix can be given four hours before, Evers said.
Performance-enhancing anabolic steroids were banned by the commission in 2008. Katler is performing tests on all race winners and randomly tests up to 20 percent of all race horses, Evers said.
"We have surprisingly few violations of our drug laws," he said.
Deaths and injuries to racehorses which occur during training are not monitored by the racing commission. Approximately 6,500 horses race each year on all of Oregon's tracks. The national mortality level has been set at 1.5 deadly breakdowns per 1,000 horses started in races, Evers said.
Changes at Portland Meadows reduced the catastrophic injury rate from 3.5 to 2 in the track's recent months-long season. But Grants Pass has just four weekends of racing.
Last year, Grants Pass Downs had three fatalities in 568 starts.
Saturday's two fatalities is likely to boost its number beyond the norm this year, Evers said.
"We are just keeping our fingers crossed there will not be any more tragedies," Evers said.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.