There's trouble in Paradise, a/k/a the Meadowlands racetrack. Since this temple to people's insatiable quest for a no-sweat buck opened 16 months ago in a New Jersey swamp, all manner of betting, racing, attendance and purse records have been set.
But a new and unenviable record also has been established at Meadowlands, where both standardbreds and thoroughbreds race year round: most horses getting sick.
The track denies it. Executive Director Jack Krumpe said, "If there were such a problem, the horsemen would have come to us and told us. They haven't." Then Krumpe quietly dispatched an underling to check the story out. What Krumpe presumably is hearing back is that respiratory maladies—ailments such as coughs, sore throats and breathing problems that keep horses out of races or make them perform poorly—are rampant at the track. While this type of sickness is a growing problem around the country, Meadowlands leads other tracks by open lengths.
For months there has been talk along the backstretch. Veterinarians and trainers say—anonymously or in very low voices—that, for sure, there is a problem. Horsemen are reluctant to knock the goose that has laid racing's largest golden egg, for Meadowlands' reputation for excellence, smart management and largess is unmatched (SI, Sept. 12).
January 2, 1978
From the day it opened, the East Rutherford track was a winner. In 181 nights of harness racing in 1977, for example, bettors pushed more than $338 million through the windows. Meadowlands became the showpiece of standardbred racing. Across the Hudson, Yonkers and Roosevelt raceways fumed as they were displaced as the ranking harness tracks in the land. Business at Yonkers nosedived so much that there is talk of letting it go to the dogs. Almost as significantly, Meadowlands is just completing a highly successful four-month thoroughbred operation—run at night, contrary to tradition and the wishes of most horsemen. Across the Hudson, Aqueduct and Belmont are uneasy. They have resorted to thousand-dollar giveaways and have hired big bands to keep bettors two-stepping to the windows.
Meadowlands has become so important and so influential that when it sneezes, tracks elsewhere tend to come down with colds. Which may be more fact than hyperbole. On Jan. 18, Meadowlands opens its second harness season, and there is apprehension, for the track can do little about most of the causes of the respiratory ailments that afflict the horses. Part of the problem is the location of the track, part that it offers such big money.
Proof of the Meadowlands malady comes from many sources. Dr. Kenneth P. Seeber, a local veterinarian, says he normally uses his fiberoptic endoscope—a flexible, $5,000 device for looking down horses' throats and around corners—eight to 10 times a week. In 1977 at Meadowlands he used it that many times a day. The view was not pretty. When asked if upper respiratory problems are worse at Meadowlands than anywhere else, another vet, Dr. Jim Mitchell, says, "There's no denying that." Dr. Allan Wise agrees: "Yes, absolutely." Further, says Wise, "If a horse didn't have respiratory problems at, say, Monmouth [another Jersey track], he does here; if he had problems at Monmouth, they are worse here."
A primary theory, and the one favored by many horsemen, is air pollution. Dr. Fred Adams says, "Meadowlands is a victim of its environment." Thoroughbred Trainer Don Combs says, "It's more difficult for a horse to breathe here. That's fact." And this leads to throat problems, including bleeding. One of harness racing's leading figures, Billy Haughton, says, "Sometimes the odor is so bad at Meadowlands you can hardly stand it." Son Peter chimes in, "It's a horrible place for a racetrack, animals and humans."
Horsemen get medical backing on this point. Dr. Jill Beech is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, the Mayo Clinic for horses. "I'm getting a lot of calls from Meadowlands," she says. "People are saying their horses didn't have respiratory problems elsewhere but they do there. I say, 'You're not the only one,' and they say, 'Right, I know lots of other horses here with the same problems.' " Beech tells horsemen she thinks the air pollution could be the reason and that if their animals are susceptible to respiratory difficulties, they had better take them elsewhere. "But," says Beech, "Meadowlands is where the money is."
So what does she suggest? "Well, some trainers are smart enough to race there but also smart enough not to stable there." One who will follow this course is Don Galbraith, who helped train ABC Freight, a prominent 3-year-old trotter. "We had eight horses at Meadowlands last spring," says Galbraith, "and five got sick with bad throats." This time around, he says, if he races at Meadowlands he will ship in a horse from Monticello, N.Y. and send it right back afterward. John Chapman, who is one of the nation's leading harness drivers, plans similar strategy. "There's so much of this respiratory stuff at Meadowlands," he says. "Something's wrong there."
William D. McDowell, head of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, is defensive. "I'd be hard pressed to think the air has anything to do with the health of the horses," he says. "If you go by smell alone, you can conclude that everything is rotten."
Which is how things frequently smell around Meadowlands. The surrounding industrial mishmash has been abused for 200 years. Every day more than 16 million pounds of garbage are brought to the area from 140 or so New Jersey communities. Methane gas from the garbage sometimes catches fire and burns uncontrollably. Nearby chemical plants, including a company that makes perfume fragrances, contribute to the pollution. Heavy traffic on the adjacent New Jersey Turnpike further fouls the air. State authorities insist the carbon monoxide is within federal limits but concede that hydrocarbons, substances that are mainly emitted from vehicles and which can't be seen and are seldom smelled, are way above federal standards. Hydrocarbons create ozone, which hampers breathing. Finally, the moss in the swamps smells like rotten eggs.
McDowell does admit that "If I were a horseman, I would blame my problems on things I can see and smell. That's normal." Herb Paley, a thoroughbred trainer at Meadowlands, says, "I don't care how clean the government tells me the air is. I know it's unhealthy. I can feel it in my lungs." With that he pulls from his pockets handfuls of pills and decongestants. Veterinarian Wise says, "The quality of the air is so irritating. I feel good when I leave my home in South Jersey and awful when I get here." Byron Sullivan, supervisor of the Newark field office at the New Jersey Bureau of Air Pollution Control, confesses, "There's no way the air around Meadowlands can be beneficial to plants and animals." He suggests a return to bicycles. Regardless, Krumpe says, "The air is cleaner now than when we got here."
One firm loudly criticized by horsemen for emitting odors is Scientific Chemical Processing, Inc., right across the street from the stable area. However, Herbert Case, a vice-president, says his plant emits nothing, and he sniffs, "Our problem is those horrible odors from the racetrack." Another suspect is U.O.P., the company that makes fragrances. Daren Chenkin, a company engineer, says, "Eighty-five to 95% of the time it's not us. I tell you, we're fussy." The Air Pollution Control people say they talk to both companies, and Sullivan says U.O.P. promises to outline a program of pollution control at a meeting this month. Bob Grant, a spokesman for the Hackensack Meadowlands Commission, says, "Maybe the problem is that man is not good for his environment and the brain is an evolutionary mistake."
A major problem with horses is chronic pharyngitis, which is comparable to adenoid difficulties in children. New Bolton Center's Charles W. Raker, an expert on upper respiratory ailments, thinks that "environmental pollutants may. be a significant factor" in aggravating pharyngitis. He points out that sucking in huge volumes of dirty air (a horse normally exchanges 40 liters of air a minute at rest, at least 250 under stress) can irritate the throat and lungs, which often results in bleeding.
New Jersey keeps tightening its regulations regarding use of the main anti-bleeding drug, Lasix. The state racing commission thinks that Lasix may mask other illegal drugs, although evidence seems to suggest that's not why the horsemen at Meadowlands are so eager to use it. Most veterinarians say Lasix lowers horses' blood pressure, which eases pressure on fragile blood vessels, which in turn lessens their chances of breaking and bleeding. "Racing with a mouth full of blood," says Seeber, "is like running with a throat full of water." About 8% of the horses at Meadowlands are injected with Lasix. Seeber, like many veterinarians, considers Lasix valuable because it enables a horse to race closer to his form, thus making him a fairer bet. An anti-Lasix vet, Jim Mitchell, says, "I don't give a damn about the $2 bettor. I care about the horse." He thinks sick animals should be rested. In his opinion the drug definitely aids breathing and this is a big competitive advantage to any horse that is injected with it, whether he's a bleeder or not.
The greenback lure of Meadowlands may cause as many problems as air pollution. Horses race at the track for around $110,000 a night. Keystone, a nearby Philadelphia thoroughbred track, averages $62,000 a day in purse money. Freehold, N.J., a harness track, averages around $25,000 a day and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell $33,000. With so much money at stake, owners—who pay up to $1,000 a month to keep a horse in training—have their heads turned by the size of the Meadowlands pots. They are not anxious to turn a horse out at the first sniffle. Again, Seeber makes a pitch for permissive medication. "It's like GM," he says. "They don't say, 'Ah, nuts, we can't seem to correct all the defects, so we're going to stop making cars.' They work on the problems."
The money attracts horses to Meadowlands from all over the country, and, naturally, they arrive with viral bugs from back home. In world-record time these germs then pass through the barns, especially those occupied by 2-and 3-year-olds. Often, horses on the verge of sickness are shipped anyway, because a Meadowlands race offers too much money to pass up. Some 5,000 horses were shipped in and out of Meadowlands in 1977. In contrast, at Roosevelt and Yonkers raceways essentially the same group of horses race all year.
In the Meadowlands barns the horses face each other. Thus, one coughing horse can ruin a lot of days for everyone else. At most tracks horses are stabled back to back, with partitions in between. Meadowlands can do something about its barn design, but compared to the other factors involved, this one is minor.
Year-round racing is hard on horses. Seeber says, "If you drive a car only 5,000 miles a year, it doesn't take much care. But if you drive it 50,000, it takes a lot." Still, states insist their tracks stay open year-round because they need the money. Meadowlands will contribute close to $8 million to New Jersey on a 1977 handle of approximately $500 million. Trot-ting's Stanley Dancer is one who doesn't think horses are getting sicker more often at Meadowlands. Rather, he believes that 12-month racing is not conducive to a horse's health.
Trainers are under pressure at Meadowlands—as elsewhere—to enter horses to fill out a field, especially in bad weather. If a horseman complies, he can expect the racing secretary to make a race especially designed for his horse at a later, more advantageous time. So everyone's back gets scratched except the horse's. Without doubt, racing in the cold seems to bother some horses. One theory is that the wintry air the horse sucks in is insufficiently warmed before reaching the lungs.
Dr. Leroy Coggins of Cornell is seeking to get horsemen to use a flu vaccine more than they have been. But the vaccine can make a horse sick for a day or two. For this reason, many horsemen shun it. So what's the answer to controlling upper respiratory illness? Says Coggins, "Don't race as much, certainly don't race in the winter and never let horses get together." Vaporizer-like medication may help. Allergic horses may be aided by being bedded down on peat moss instead of straw and eating prepared feed instead of hay and oats. A horse can be cured by not racing him too soon after a throat ailment. But because the recommended recovery period usually is about a month, that is advice trainers find difficult to swallow. They think in terms of at least three races a month and those big numbers at Meadowlands are a strong temptation.
So all these factors—polluted air, poor weather, too much money at stake, too frequent racing (sometimes as many as three races in 10 days for a horse), too much movement of horses—are converging at the Meadowlands. And there apparently is no cure. Except moving the nation's No. 1 harness track.