BALTIMORE -- Except for the occasional victory guarantee by Big Brown's trainer, this has been a particularly low-key Preakness week so far.
It's been less than two weeks since the filly Eight Belles was euthanized after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and there's a numbness around the barn areas at Pimlico.
Everybody seems puzzled about how to act. Instead of preparing for the coronation of Big Brown as a Triple Crown contender, which is inevitable considering the lack of competition he faces in Saturday's race, everyone in the industry has their fingers crossed that nothing else goes wrong.
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The thoroughbred game can't afford it.
There's been two tragedies in three years, beginning with Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness, with the spotlight on the sport. A third would sentence a sport that rivals boxing in its lack of institutional control to the bottom of the public's interest level. Watch the television networks scramble to get out of their contracts if there's another tragedy.
The PETA pickets, who are expected Saturday, will eventually move on to another cause, but horse racing's problems are not going away. What ails this industry goes far beyond the Triple Crown tragedies.
"It's the most dysfunctional industry in sports," Hall of Fame jockey turned ESPN analyst Jerry Bailey, who obviously doesn't know much about boxing, was saying Thursday morning not far from Big Brown's stable, where trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. was telling anyone who would listen how good his colt is.
A Big Brown win that would make the Belmont Stakes on June 7 extra meaningful would be good for the game, just as the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed 30 years ago would be even better. "Every little bit can help," said Dutrow.
What would help the sport's image a lot more would be a concerted effort to clean up the game.
"We've got to do something about steroids," said one owner, who did not want to be identified. "Too many owners and trainers are using them on their horses. I still don't, but I know owners who say they have no other choice if they want to win."
Here's where the horsemen have to change their ways. Despite evidence that medication policies have been a failure in this country, horsemen continue to resist efforts to curb the use of medications.
While not necessarily referring to steroid use, Bailey feels everyone in the industry has been willing to give. If the jockeys give up whips, the trainers have to give up the drugs.
Then there are the owners and the breeders. Responding to the wishes of the owners, breeders are producing yearlings who are bred for speed, not durability. Today's thoroughbreds are brittle and race a lot less than horses in the past.
Before the Derby, the Wall Street Journal reported that all 20 horses in the field descended from Native Dancer. The report warned that Native Dancer's offspring might be prone to foot or leg injuries, pointing out that Native Dancer stopped racing as a 4-year-old and Barbaro was from the same bloodline.
"Like hemophilia in the Russian royal family, Native Dancer's line has a tragic flaw," the Journal reported.
Eight Belles, who suffered compound fractures in both front ankles, was Native Dancer's great-great-granddaughter.
By now, you've probably seen the images of Eight Belles prone on the Churchill Downs track.
"Like every other tragedy," said Bailey, "there's been a lot of piling on. It's constantly replayed and replayed (many times by ESPN, the former jockey's employer)."
That's what is most disturbing about horsemen. They tend to get defensive when outsiders criticize their sport.
It's time they changed. The safety of the horses depends on it, as does the future of their livelihood.
Nick Zito is a realist. While he's been adamant that dirt tracks, not synthetic, are better for the animals, the Hall of Fame trainer doesn't want to leave the impression that he's resistant to change.
"Because I speak out on the synthetic surfaces, it's not because we never want to protect horses," Zito said. "The horse is the main thing. We want to preserve the game."
They had better. Before it's too late.