Another Horse’s Death Overshadows Vino Rosso’s Win at Breeders’ Cup Classic
ARCADIA, Calif. — Through the 14 races run and nationally televised over the weekend as part of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships here at Santa Anita Park, anyone who loved this picturesque racetrack — or the beauty of thoroughbreds in full flight — held their breaths as one multimillion-dollar race after another concluded without a horse taking a bad step.
After all, 36 horses had died here since Dec. 30 in all kinds of ways.
So, when the New York-based horse Vino Rosso crossed the finish line here on Saturday to win the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, the event’s marquee race and the final one on the card, the collective exhale of relief was nearly audible.
Unnoticed by most of the announced crowd of 67,811, however, was that a horse named Mongolian Groom had taken that dreaded bad step and was suddenly pulled up in the stretch by his jockey, Abel Cedillo, after establishing himself in third place and looking every bit like a contender to win North America’s most prestigious race.
Instead, an equine ambulance was soon barreling down the stretch and, as NBC broadcast to its prime-time audience a jubilant celebration in the box of Vino Rosso’s owner, Mike Repole, Mongolian Groom was loaded into the truck and taken to a hospital on Santa Anita’s barn area beneath the rouge-tipped San Gabriel Mountains.
The diagnosis was dire — a serious fracture of the horse’s left hind limb. The prescription was all too familiar: Mongolian Groom was euthanized and became the 37th and most high-profile dead horse at Santa Anita.
“The death of Mongolian Groom is a loss to the entire horse racing community,” the Breeders’ Cup organizers said in a statement. “Our equine and human athletes’ safety is the Breeders’ Cup’s top priority.”
About 10 thoroughbred horses die a week at American racetracks, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, and the scourge of drugs — painkillers and performance enhancers — has been acknowledged by industry leaders. The American death toll is anywhere from two and a half to five times greater than the fatality rate in Europe and Asia, where rules against performance-enhancing drugs are enforced more stringently.
In fact, the Jockey Club and other prominent owners and breeders have endorsed a bipartisan bill in Congress called the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019, which would create a private, independent authority to develop and administer a nationwide antidoping and medication control program for horse racing.
Santa Anita has been a flash point in the dialogue about horse safety. Over the summer, the Breeders’ Cup board, composed of the sport’s main movers and shakers, considered moving its annual event from the troubled track.
But Craig Fravel, the Breeders’ Cup president and chief executive officer, said that the board had decided to stay with Santa Anita after its owners, the Stronach Group, enacted some of the most aggressive and stringent drug and safety rules.
In the coming days, Fravel will leave his post at the Breeders’ Cup to become head of racing operations at the Stronach Group.
The deaths of Mongolian Groom and the 36 other horses this year highlight both the dangerous and haphazard nature of horse racing and, in some cases, the recklessness and callousness of some of the humans who own, train and make a living off the horses. On Oct. 27, a 2-year-old filly named Bye Bye Beautiful became the 36th horse to die at Santa Anita after breaking her leg.
It has been a nightmare for one of America’s oldest sports that has grown into a multibillion-dollar agribusiness. Veterinary care has been improving, but it remains difficult to rehabilitate horses from fractures because they cannot be immobilized. The wave of horse deaths has prompted a national discussion, often angry, between animal rights activists and horse people of what exactly is cruelty and abuse and what is, frankly, the breaks of the game.
Santa Anita’s precarious place in both the sport and the orbit of California politics has been stated in no certain terms by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Senator Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats of California.
“I believe this weekend presents a critical test for the future of horse racing in California and in the United States,” Feinstein wrote on the eve of the two-day event. “If horse racing cannot be conducted in a safe and humane manner that protects the life and safety of horses and jockeys, it may be time to re-examine the future of this sport in our state and in our country.”
Newsom was even more direct.
“I’ll tell you — talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform,” he said recently at a meeting with New York Times reporters. “That’s horse racing. Incredible abuses to these precious animals and the willingness to just to spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace.”
Mike Tierney reported from Arcadia, and Joe Drape from New York.
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