Kentucky Derby tragedy sad reality at local horse racing track

Local fans don’t have to wait for Big Brown’s Triple Crown quest at Belmont on June 7. The excitement – and peril – of the sport comes to Colorado’s only horse track, Arapahoe Park in Aurora, on May 24.

During its 36 days of live horse racing between now and Aug. 10, the park will draw thousands of fans, take in millions in bets, and probably see at least one horse put down because of injury.

This year’s Kentucky Derby, which saw winner Big Brown become a contender for the Triple Crown, prompted a national debate about the risk to racing horses when the Derby’s only filly, Eight Belles, took a horrific tumble while tailing Big Brown across the finish line

Of the 2,567 horses out of the gate at Arapahoe Park in 2007, there were 62 race injuries, two of which ended the injured horse’s racing career and another three ended its life, resulting in euthanasia, according to records kept by the Colorado Department of Revenue. In 2006, 41 horse racing injuries occurred, according to the state.

At least one horse has been euthanized at the track due to a racing injury each year since 2000, with a high of 11 euthanized race horses in 2003, according to state records.

“Yes, you do have injuries. It’s part of the game, unfortunately,” said track spokesman Sean Beirne. “It’s a very sad part of our game.”

(Photo/Mile High Racing & Entertainment)Arapahoe Park’s dirt track is the same kind of surface used in the Derby.

“We feel like we’ve got a very safe surface,” Beirne said.

Some animal advocates argue that switching to a synthetic track, a popular alternative in Europe, decreases the rate of race horses “catastrophic” or fatal injuries.

Last year the California Horse Racing Board voted to require all tracks in the state to switch to synthetic surfaces.

But the data can be conflicting. The California-based Center for Equine Health is currently funding a University of California-Davis study on the causes of fatal injuries on the track. As researcher Susan M. Stover points out in the study proposal:

“Racetrack surfaces have long been blamed for causing injuries, but epidemiologic studies of racetrack surfaces have been inconclusive because the effects of multiple, confounding factors that affect injury are difficult to separate.”

Beirne said installing a synthetic track at Arapahoe Park would cost more than $10 million, which isn’t an investment the park is willing to make, partly because the jury is still out on whether synthetic tracks reduce injuries.

Other equine advocates blame accidents such as Eight Belles’ and 2006 Derby winner Barbaro’s leg-shattering crash in the Preakness that ultimately resulted in his death on over-breeding thoroughbreds or racing them too young.

Thoroughbreds, Paint horses, quarter horses, Arabians and Appaloosas all race at Arapahoe Park, Beirne said.

Defenders of horse racing argue that, like baseball or football, horse racing is a sport and some of the equine “athletes” will be injured. Animal rights activists counter that the horses have no choice but to run the race they’re in, and run hard.

Despite the risks, and although horse racing as a sport has been in decline, Arapahoe Park still draws a decent crowd during its racing season each year.

Last year 68,082 people attended the track’s live races, an increase of 13 percent from the previous year, said Beirne.

Although they run only four-months a year, horse racing in Colorado is big business.

In 2006, the last year for which numbers were available, 355 live horse races took place in Colorado over 39 days. The state collected $16,000 in taxes off of the $4.6 million bet on those races, while Arapahoe Park collected $941,000 in revenue, according to the Department of Revenue’s annual report on Colorado’s dog and horse racing tracks.

In addition to Colorado’s single horse track, the state has five licensed dog racing tracks and two licensed off-track betting facilities that allow gamblers to place their bets while watching races live on a bank of TV screens. Dog racing is twice as popular and lucrative as horse racing.

In 2006, Coloradans bet $150 million on more than 91,000 live and simulcast races. Colorado tracks collected $29 million in revenue while the state got $3.2 million in tax revenue and cities home to the various tracks collected a total of $201,000.

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J.C. O'Connell

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