Racing: Alarm as Prairie joins the prime-time fatalities: The death of the favourite in the Belmont Stakes is conspicuous evidence of American racing's high rate of attrition

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The Independent Online
HORSERACE betting in America is a numbers game, but even the most hardened punters in Las Vegas were distressed here at the weekend when Prairie Bayou's number came up in the Belmont Stakes, the last of the Triple Crown events. The winner of the Preakness Stakes shattered his left leg after half a mile, thus continuing a wretched run of fatalities in the country's foremost races.

Prairie Bayou was regarded as much the best three-year-old in the USA following his second place in the Kentucky Derby and his win in the middle leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico. But his death at Belmont Park did more than deepen the cynicism about the quality of this year's crop. It closed the gap between racing and boxing in the shame league still further and illuminated again the high attrition rates in American racing.

A highly conservative estimate advanced three years ago suggested that 40 per cent of thoroughbreds break down in training on the hard oval dirt tracks on which 70 per cent of American races are run. The problem for defenders of the system here is that an unremitting sequence of accidents has bedevilled the top races in front of huge television audiences. In Prairie Bayou's Preakness, Union City, trained by D Wayne Lukas, hobbled to a halt after breaking a bone in his ankle, and later had to be destroyed by lethal injection.

The obituaries file is becoming unmanageably big. Belmont Park will recall ruefully that is was there in 1990 that three horses were killed on Breeders' Cup day. First an animal called Shaker Knit suffered a heart attack in the Sprint and brought down Mr Nickerson. Then Go For Wand crashed to the dirt in the stretch as she was racing nose to nose with Bayakoa for the Breeders' Cup Distaff. The image of Go For Wand rising from the ground and trying to continue with one of her front legs flapping will be taken to the grave by many who saw it.

It is grimly ironic that the Belmont Stakes is known as 'the graveyard of champions' for its habit of unravelling winning runs. It was gruesome, too, that Prairie Bayou's death handed a dollars 1m bonus to the connections of Sea Hero, winner of the Kentucky Derby but a failure since. Points are awarded for each placing in Triple Crown races, and though Sea Hero (with 10) accumulated a third less than Prairie Bayou (15), the rules stipulate that a horse must complete all three races.

At least Prairie Bayou's trainer has escaped the kind of controversy that attended Union City's demise. Union City was travelling well on the far turn at Churchill Downs but capitulated rapidly in the straight and staggered in 15th, some 18 lengths behind Sea Hero.

According to this week's Sports Illustrated, Union City was given no major workout between the Derby and the Preakness, prompting suggestions that he was unsound. A 'horseman' at Pimlico reported seeing Union City standing in ice twice a day in the run up to the race.

After the accident Lukas was subjected to intense scrutiny. Among the headlines were 'Did he have to die?' in the New York Post, and 'Lukas must face question: did ambition rule judgment' in the sober Lexington Herald-Leader, which publishes in the heart of Kentucky bluegrass country. 'It was like a pack of wolves on a wounded deer,' Lukas said, insisting: 'The horse was physically fine. Periodically we ice horses. It is a common practice.'

For Union City's trainer, the row came at the worst possible time. For two years the crows on racing's telephone wires have been saying that Lukas - the Martin Pipe of American Flat racing - is in financial difficulties, and the Union City affair at last brought his problems into the public domain. Lukas has suffered from the failure of various business schemes, loss of owners in the recession and the inability to produce a recent champion. He has not trained a Grade One winner since October 1991, and is only ninth in this year's prize-money table.

That Lukas has surrendered control of his own financial affairs illustrates just how far his fortunes have declined since the days when he was setting earnings records year after year. The consensus is that he will thrive again, and already the Union City debate is swinging back his way. In a letter to the Daily Racing Form, the horse's owner, William Young, wrote: 'The decision to run in the Preakness was mine, not Wayne Lukas's. We would never intentionally run an unsound horse.'

Whatever the circumstances, though, the knackers' yards are remaining busy. Prairie Bayou proved that.

(Photograph omitted)