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Protestors need an education in racing, Migliore says

May 13, 2008 7:00 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Richard Migliore has his act together. A devoted family man of traditional Italian background, the 44-year-old Long Island native also is one of racing’s most respected and popular representatives.

In addition to winning more than 4,000 races, he holds four of the game’s most cherished prizes: an Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding apprentice jockey in 1981; the Eddie Arcaro Award from the New York Turf Writers as outstanding jockey in 1981 and 1985; the Mike Venezia Memorial Award (for extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship) in 2003; and this year, Santa Anita’s George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, voted on by fellow riders to those whose careers and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport.

Migliore has been a refreshing addition to the Southern California riding colony since arriving from New York nearly two years ago to ride full time. He is pleasant, polite, friendly, candid, articulate and ingratiating, traits that are rarer by the hour in today’s me-first society.

He estimates he has ridden 27,000 races in an exemplary career of more than 27 years. It hasn’t always been a day at the beach. He suffered a near-fatal neck injury when thrown from Madam Alydar in the first race at Belmont Park on May 30, 1988. The accident was later aired on the television series, "Rescue 911."

Migliore was sidelined six months. He broke his left leg and injured his Achilles tendon in a freak paddock accident at Belmont nine days before the 2005 Breeders’ Cup and lost the mount on Mile winner Artie Schiller.

But his passion and compassion for racing still flares, and a spark ignited those emotions after the national furor created by the fatal breakdown of the filly Eight Belles following her second-place finish to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby on May 3. Protestors ignorant of racing emerged from their dungeons built on vested interests to rail against racing, shooting from the hip, as is their wont.

Led by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), objectors accused Eight Belles’ trainer, Larry Jones, of using steroids on the filly, criticized owner Rick Porter for running her against colts, and said her 20-year-old rider, Gabriel Saez, could have pulled her up before the injury.

Maybe the protest group should call itself PETA Rabbit, because its logic borders on the stuff of fairytales, according to Migliore.

"You can’t always tell when a horse is going to break down or suffer a heart attack," he said. "Sometimes you can feel a horse’s stride start to deteriorate, but most of the time, it’s completely sudden and there’s no warning. For anyone to blame Saez for Eight Belles’ injury is awful. PETA has very little understanding of our sport and our horses. To vilify a kid who’s done absolutely nothing wrong is a crime."

It could have been worse. If the breakdown had occurred during the race, it could have made the chariot scene in "Ben Hur" seem as tame as a carriage ride in Central Park.

"You’ve got a 20-horse field and everybody’s riding as hard as he can – it’s the Kentucky Derby," Migliore said. "If Saez felt anything amiss, there’s no way he wouldn’t have reacted appropriately and started to ease her. The race was over (Eight Belles was nearing the end of her gallop out when the injury occurred). Everybody was relaxed. I was about 30 yards behind her (aboard Bob Black Jack, who finished 16th after leading for six furlongs). Eight Belles was almost from a gallop to a jog when her injuries occurred.

"There’s no way that kid could have had any inkling there was anything wrong, and you know what? I don’t think anything was wrong until the moment it happened. When you think about how much weight a horse distributes on each ankle at any given time, when one gave way, in that split second, the horse’s instinct is to try and catch herself, and all that weight is transferred on to the other ankle, but it was an absolute freak event. I have never seen anything like it since I’ve been riding, and I hope I never see it again.

"But it really burns me that people who probably don’t care that much about Eight Belles have a knee-jerk reaction and have a platform to use her on their agenda. It’s just wrong. A fatal injury could happen to a $10,000 claiming horse anywhere in the country on a given day and PETA doesn’t bat an eye about it.

"In the past 41 years, there hasn’t been a fatality in the Kentucky Derby. While we should be celebrating a victory by a brilliant race horse (Big Brown) and the potential for a Triple Crown winner, this is what our industry has to deal with now. It’s another black eye from people who just want to get up on their soap box with no knowledge of our game.

"The other thing that gets me is, they say, ‘We make these horses run.’ They’re bred to run, and I would love to invite these people who are vilifying racing now to watch wild horses. Horses are herd animals and flight animals, and they run. Horses in the wild break legs more than they do in horse racing. People may not believe that, but I guarantee it, and a wild horse that’s injured suffers until a prey animal gets it.

;"The protests are absurd and I’m sick of hearing people sound off when they should take a step back and gain knowledge and learn how much our horses are pampered and how well they’re taken care of. Nothing else matter but their agenda, and it just galls me."

Migliore did concede that the practice of whipping horses could be modified.

"Obviously, there can be excesses," he said, "and I’d like to see stronger guidelines. But jockeys are caught in the middle. If I know the horse I’m riding has given me everything, but I don’t hit it again, the public thinks I’m not trying. But I’m a horseman, and it’s taken me 27 years of riding to get to the stage where I don’t care now what anybody thinks. I do what I think is right.

"But if the pressure of whipping was removed from a young rider whose horse has nothing left to give and he was supported by racing’s governing bodies in that respect, people screaming that a rider wasn’t going all out for a minor placing would be more understanding and those who don’t understand wouldn’t protest.

;"You can’t have it both ways." he continued. "Education is needed on both sides. You don’t want to beat a horse for no reason, but even now, whips we use are designed not to welt or cut a horse. I could hit you with one and it wouldn’t hurt. Horses run more from the threat of being hit than actually getting hit. More horses react negatively from actually getting hit."

As for Saturday’s Preakness, Migliore says it’s Big Brown’s race to lose.

"Big Brown made me a believer," he said. "Going into the fourth start of his life, winning from post 20 in the Kentucky Derby, not only did he do it, he did it in style, with panache. He’s a serious horse."

The homestretch

Normally, there isn’t one word on racing in a Tuesday edition of the Los Angeles Times, but because of Eight Belles’ fatal breakdown in the Kentucky Derby, there were 75 inches in its sports section on May 7, in addition to a 15-inch editorial stating that "The racing world would be smart to put a higher priority on reining in horse injuries and deaths, before public outrage leads to calls for more draconian controls."

Public outrage in horse racing won’t happen, not with weekday attendance at major tracks like Santa Anita and Hollywood Park barely numbering 3,000 live souls, thanks to papers like the Times ignoring racing with virtually zero coverage (including not one word on the Santa Anita Derby a day before the race), unless there’s a fatal breakdown in a race like the Kentucky Derby.

In its story, the Times listed eight stakes horses that had fatal breakdowns, dating back to Ruffian in 1975, nearly 40 years ago. Talk about a stretch to make a point. (Don’t tell PETA, but I once stepped on a cockroach).

• Report from the Barclay Tagg barn has Tale of Ekati, fourth in the Kentucky Derby at 37-1, pointing to the Belmont Stakes on June 7, Elysium Fields turned out for a 30-day vacation in Kentucky, and Nobiz Like Showbiz about to resume training.