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updated: 8/2/2011 3:31 PM

Horse racetracks take different tacks during heat

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Associated Press

COLLINSVILLE -- Rafael Hernandez was red hot -- not just because he rode Electric Stride to Fairmount Park's winner's circle, the jockey's third win in as many races that afternoon, but because the temperature and humidity together made it feel as if it was 105 degrees.

After the exertion of their victory last week, both man and beast cooled off immediately, with Hernandez making a hasty retreat to the air-conditioned jockeys' quarters as the thoroughbred got sponged with icy water.

The swelter that tested the fitness of man and beast illustrates the dilemma at U.S. tracks over whether the race should go on in such withering environs. Extreme heat prompted at least 10 U.S. horse tracks and one in Canada to cancel races on seven dates and to postpone races on five other days during a particularly sweaty July stretch.

Some animal-welfare observers aren't convinced that's enough, worried that in an industry that has no hard-and-fast guidance on when the heat may be too much, tracks pressing on with the races were imperiling even creatures as well-conditioned as racehorses.

"I do agree that cancelling (on days with heat advisories) is the responsible approach," said Margo Sutter, whose southwestern Illinois horse-rescue ranch near St. Louis has about 50 horses, some of them retired from racing. "I lean on the side of the animal, so let's just do what the right thing is for the horse at all times.

"Why push the envelope on a healthy creature, and a human being?"

Such decisions are made on a track-by-track basis, based on local weather conditions and old-fashioned discretion, said Eric Wing of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

"What it comes down to is a common-sense decision based on input from the track veterinarians, trainers and the jockeys," Wing said.

That approach doesn't satisfy the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has called on tracks to forgo horse races on excessively hot days and criticized Fairmount after a horse was euthanized there July 19 before a race.

PETA says it suspects the death of Apt to Dance might have been heat-related. Fairmount and the regulatory Illinois Racing Board say that's not so, insisting the 3-year-old suffered an injury that track veterinarians deemed untreatable when it was spooked, raised up on its hind legs and tumbled onto its back.

"That was not heat-related," said Mickey Ezzo, the racing board's spokesman.

At New Jersey's Monmouth Park, general manager Bob Kulina said the Oceanport track opted for caution in scrapping its race card July 23 -- an otherwise lucrative Saturday, costing the track about $100,000 -- on a day the heat index shot up to a smothering 115 degrees. The track rescheduled the previous day's races to the following Monday. Several other tracks on the East Coast also canceled races around that time.

Such a move is immensely rare for Monmouth, which now has canceled race cards just three times in its 65-year history.

"At the end of the day, it all comes down to safety," Kulina said, but adds, "I think racing a lot of times is not the wrong thing to do."

Fairmount president and general manager Brian Zander said the decision whether to jettison a day's events -- in which eight races generally pay out a combined $40,000 to $50,000 -- is "purposely something a track doesn't make." Instead, on-site representatives of the Illinois Racing Board make those calls in consultation with state veterinarians there each race day.

"Our position is that we basically defer to them," Zander said, noting that owners, trainers and jockeys also have a say in whether they want to participate on a hot day.

Fairmount insists it has taken appropriate measures, including cutting post parades -- the time bettors get to evaluate the horses before the race -- by more than half their typical 10-minute time. That lets horses stay in shady paddocks longer, but can cost the track if uncertain wagerers don't place their bets in time.

Hoses stand at the ready to cool the thoroughbreds before and after they run. The jockeys' dressing room and lounge are air conditioned. Two veterinarians standing by -- one employed by Fairmount, the other by the state -- have a combined three-quarters of a century experience, more than ample to assess the safety of racing in such heat, Zander said.

Moments before riding 6-year-old Electric Stride to victory, Hernandez, 26, donned his silks for one of his seven races that day, unbothered by the decision to keep the races running.

"Nobody wants to hurt the horse," he said.

Electric Stride's owner, Kevin Rakers, credited operators with taking all the right safeguards on a day when sweat was rolling off of him.

"I don't think the horses are in harm's way because of the heat," he said. "Naturally, you'd like to see it be 50 degrees, but it's not."

Organizations like the Humane Society of the United States are watching closely.

"Any time horses are being put under stress at work," said the group's Keith Dane, "their welfare should be a primary concern."