Santa Anita Park almost escaped unscathed. Almost.
Then the worst thing that could have happened, happened.
Two days of wonderful weather and great racing featuring several upsets and a likely Horse of The Year coronation for Bricks and Mortar with his thrilling Turf win evaporated near the end of the final event, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Highly regarded 15-1 underdog Mongolian Groom suffered a severe injury to his left hind leg and was pulled up by jockey Abel Cedillo as the remainder of the field dashed toward a finish gained by Todd Pletcher-trained Vino Rosso.
At the time of the incident, Mongolian Groom was in third place moving in to challenge War of Will. Replays suggest the two horses may have clipped heels. War of Will is the horse that ignited the disqualification of Maximum Security from a Kentucky Derby win May 4 when stewards ruled he was interfered with by the apparent winner.
After being pulled up, Mongolian Groom was immediately taken off to a nearby equine hospital in an equine ambulance and, following consultation with veterinarians and ownership, humanely euthanized.
Shortly after the final race, the Breeders’ Cup released the following statement, presented here in full:
Statement from Breeders’ Cup Ltd.
Mongolian Groom sustained an injury in the Breeders’ Cup Classic today and was immediately attended to by an expert team of veterinarians, led by board certified veterinary surgeon Dr. Ryan Carpenter. During their evaluation at the equine hospital at Santa Anita, they observed a serious fracture to his left hind limb. Radiographs were taken and a complete evaluation was performed. Given the extent of the injury, Dr. Carpenter, in consultation with Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, veterinary surgeon and professor emeritus at Colorado State University, Dr. Rick Arthur, Equine Medical Director of the California Horse Racing Board, and attending veterinarian Dr. Vince Baker, recommended humane euthanasia of Mongolian Groom.
The death of Mongolian Groom is a loss to the entire horse racing community. Our equine and human athletes’ safety is the Breeders’ Cup’s top priority. We have worked closely with Santa Anita leading up to the World Championships to promote enhanced equine safety. Santa Anita has implemented numerous industry-leading reforms to enhance the existing health and safety measures with the intent of providing a safe racing environment. In addition, Breeders’ Cup always observes the most thorough up-to-date medication practices and restrictions, testing protocols, equine security and surveillance program, veterinary exams, injury management protocols and racing surface testing. These measures are in place to ensure our athletes are racing under the safest and most transparent conditions possible.
Breeders’ Cup has engaged world-renowned veterinarian, Dr. Larry Bramlage, to conduct an independent evaluation, the results of which will be published when completed. We will continue to keep all stakeholders apprised as information becomes available. We are committed to working with our partners in the industry to continue to advance safety reforms, with the well-being of our athletes in mind.
Put in perspective, this has happened before. In the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Belmont Park, NY, Go For Wand broke down in a stretch duel with Argentinian rival Bayakoa and was euthanized on the track. Earlier that same day, Mr. Nickerson suffered an apparent heart attack and collapsed on the track during the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. In the 2007 Classic, George Washington broke down on a rain-soaked, mud engorged track at Monmouth Park, NJ and was euthanized. The Breeders’ Cup returned to Belmont in 2001, but has not returned to Monmouth. It is scheduled next year for Keeneland, KY.
However, given a year in which 37 horses have died since Dec. 26 at Santa Anita, little weight will be given to perspective in the coming days as industry executives, government officials—and fans—ponder the future of Santa Anita Park and of U.S. horseracing itself.
During the post-race press conference, before the final fate of Mongolian Groom was known, Vino Rosso’s winning trainer Todd Pletcher acknowledged everyone’s concern:
“It’s something that I think we all were concerned about coming in. We’re not only anxious for races like these, but hoping that everything would go safely and smoothly. I think everyone took every precautionary measure they possibly could.”
Santa Anita introduced a series of medication and veterinary reforms in March intended to make it the safest track in the country. The Breeders’ Cup adopted those policies for this meeting. It put in place a system requiring horses to be examined four times before race day and watched at every pre-race activity on race day. There were 30 veterinarians present for the Friday and Saturday Breeders’ Cup races. Several horses were veterinarian-scratched.
The death of Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes winner Mongolian Groom bookends a tragic year in which Grade 1 and 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Battle of Midway died during a workout Feb 23. His was the 18th death since the season’s open Dec. 26, but the most prominent, bringing Santa Anita under extraordinary scrutiny from track, industry and government officials, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Dem – CA) and California Governor Gavin Newsom. The result was the enactment of stringent precautions and the empowerment of the California Horse Racing Board to unilaterally cancel racing at any State track for safety concerns.
None of those precautions and concerns may matter as Santa Anita’s—and perhaps U.S. horseracing’s future—is pondered over the following days and weeks during this, U.S. racing’s most ponderous year.