Racing’s turbulent year continues: Breeders’ Cup marred by breakdown in final race

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ARCADIA, California – They came to California this weekend to race, but also to heal, and in the most public way possible. Owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys. And horses. Most of all, the horses. They came from Europe and Asia and from across the United States. From New York and Kentucky and from right here in California, where horses could sleep on familiar straw and race on familiar dirt and grass. They came to run the two days and 14 races of the Breeders’ Cup Championships, at Santa Anita, but also with hopes of applying ointment to an open wound that can’t be healed in a weekend, and to remind themselves and the world of the good in their sport. If only for two days.

They raced close to the end of an agonizing season for their sport, in which too many horses have died and in which racing has struggled for a meaningful response beyond repeated declarations of their love for horses, which is unassailable yet insufficient. And they raced where it all started, here at an 85-year-old art-deco masterpiece of a racetrack, breathtakingly framed by brown mountains and blue sky. It was last winter and spring that more than 20 horses died here in six weeks, effectively changing the public’s perception of thoroughbred racing in a way that will demand answers and will not dissolve soon.

For two days, even as racing debates its future, that answer was: Watch us run. Watch us laugh. Watch us cry.

Over those two days, 142 thoroughbreds ran 13 races over a distance of 11 ¾ miles on dirt and grass. Each of them crossed the finish line on four sound legs and walked back to their barns, winners and losers both tired, but all of them healthy. As the field was loaded into the starting gate for the Classic, the climactic 1 ¼-mile race of the championships, with the sun falling behind the grandstand, racing was just over two minutes away from emerging temporarily unscathed. The industry held a sigh of relief in its  throat, which it would release when the 11th horse in the field crossed safely beneath the wire. That never happened. The sigh of relief instead became a gasp.

As the Classic field turned for home, favorite McKinzie was in the lead, jockey Joel Rosario grinding in red and yellow silks. On the outside, Vino Rosso gathered himself for the stretch run beneath jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. A sensational stretch duel loomed, the perfect crowning moment for this event, in this place. The crowd beseeched their favorites. Along the rail was Mongolian Groom, a four-year-old colt who earned his way into the Classic with a victory in the Sept. 28 Awesome Again Stakes, here at Santa Anita, his first victory in nine months. He had vigorously contested the early pace set by Preakness winner War of Will, but had by this time slowed, no longer a contender.

Just short of the eighth pole, a little more than a furlong from the finish, Mongolian Groom visibly bobbled and slowed. Jockey Abel Cedillo snatched up the reins to stop the horse, a clear sign that Mongolian Groom was injured. Replays showed Mongolian Groom’s left hind leg swinging grotesquely, indicative of a very serious injury. The horses in front of Mongolian Groom pulled away. Those behind him swiftly passed. The crowd continued to roar, as Vino Rosso overtook McKinzie to win the $6 million race.

The series of events that unfolded next were a painful metaphor for the year in racing and for the dueling interests that are wrestling over the sport’s future. From seats in the Santa Anita grandstand, Vino Rosso’s connections descended to the winners’ circle, a gleeful scrum of New Yorkers, led by owners Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola and trainer Todd Pletcher. Meanwhile, two football fields up the track, a boxy, white horse ambulance pulled up alongside Mongolian Groom, who was standing uneasily on three legs. Two witnesses said he was unable to put weight on his left hind ankle. Given the appearance of the injury, this was unsurprising.

This tableau was held in place for two, long minutes, then three, then six. Here a winning horse and his human family, joyously celebrating a rare and lucrative moment. There, veterinarians and assisting personnel carefully and almost silently loading an injured horse into an ambulance, behind a screen held in place to prevent spectators from witnessing too much of a scene they could well envision on their own. Mongolian Groom stood in the ambulance, a sliver of hope in otherwise very dispiriting circumstances, more likely his last breathing moments. The final race chart contained the ominous phrase, typed antiseptically in the language of the game: “Mongolian Groom… suffered an injury to the left hind in the stretch, was pulled up and vanned off.” Again, the metaphor: In one place the beauty and wonder of racing; in another the pain and the toll on horseflesh.

Veterinarian Scott Palmer said afterward: “Mongolian Groom sustained a serious injury to his left hind ankle. The injury is a serious one. He has been taken to Santa Anita Equine Hospital.”

Then, two hours to the minute after the start of the Classic, Breeders’ Cup officials announced that Mongolian Groom had been euthanized, due to a “serious fracture to his left hind limb.” He becomes the 37th horse to die at Santa Anita since the track commenced its 2019 season last Dec. 26 and seventh to die since the 23-day fall meeting opened on Sept. 28. The deaths of these horses, and 12 at Saratoga and nine at Keeneland, and many others at far more obscure tracks, remain resonant.

The Breeders’ Cup and Santa Anita had taken unprecedented steps to ensure safe completion of the Breeders’ Cup. This was ostensibly for the protection of horses and riders but also, quite obviously with an acute awareness that any breakdowns on one of the sport’s biggest stages would intensify the pressure applied to racing by special interest groups and by a significant portion of the public at large that has evolved away from accepting horse deaths as simply part of the sport. Yet that is exactly what transpired, a crushing reality for a sport which has not yet provided a unified, industry-wide plan for dramatically reducing horse deaths due to catastrophic breakdowns.

“Such a shame,” said trainer Bob Baffert, the most recognizable face in the sport. “We put on such a good show for almost two days, and then we got so close to the finish in that last race. I feel terrible for the connections of that horse. I feel bad for the whole sport. It’s just really sad. I don’t know what else to say.” Baffert paused, and added, “We’re still cursed.”

It is noteworthy that while Breeders’ Cup officials issued the statement announcing Mongolian Groom’s death, Santa Anita officials, who have been at the center of the horse welfare issue, said nothing.

At the press conference for Vino Rosso’s connections, owner Mike Repole, a passionate supporter of racing, said, “I don’t know exactly what happened. I mean… I mean…. It does happen.” And there, in three short words totaling just five syllables, Repole summarized the reality that racing must alter. It does indeed happen, but it must be made to happen less frequently. The currents of cultural acceptance have turned against racing. It does happen has come to sound less like an empathetic explanation and more like a cold rationalization.

Baffert, meanwhile, is not wrong. For two days, the Breeders’ Cup had been a euphoric celebration of what racing can be. Santa Anita was filled like in racing’s prime. Trepidation that had hung in the air like a storm cloud seemed to lift with each passing race.

And there were stories. Good stories. In the very first race on Friday afternoon, a two-year-old son of the 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah won the juvenile turf sprint, evoking memories of his gifted sire and providing the kind of connective tissue that carries a fan’s soul across the decades and is passed through generations. Later on Friday, a 45-1 shot named Storm The Court went wire-to-wire to shock the field in the juvenile, leaving two favorites far behind and re-ordering the early ranking for next year’s Kentucky Derby.

Early on Saturday afternoon, six-year-old mare Belvoir Bay beat a field of males to win the turf sprint. Just 23 months ago, Belvoir Bay was lost for two days in the aftermath of the horrific wildfire that burned the San Luis Rey Downs training center, in the dry hills between Los Angeles and San Diego. Belvoir Bay suffered cuts and bruises, but fought back to health and excellence. Later jockey Ricardo Santana rode the speedy and brilliant Mitole to victory in the seven-furlong sprint and cried afterward, thanking family and friends and reminding all that many in the horse world stand on the shoulders of others, never alone, always surrounded. Later yet, Bricks and Mortar won the turf, his sixth consecutive victory in 2019 and seventh since surgery to correct a neuromuscular defect in his right hind leg that led to more than 400 days off. Now, in the absence of a dominant dirt horse, Bricks and Mortar is a serious candidate for Horse of the Year.

All of this was the best of racing, under withering scrutiny. In twilight, the Classic would be the perfect closing act, a battle among horses who had risen and fallen throughout the year. Even if the Breeders’ Cup had been completed with no serious injuries or fatalities, it would have been both hailed as a success and derided as an exceptionally small sample not easily replicated in any longitudinal fashion. This reality is exponentially more damning.

Racing is left not with an image of thoroughbreds in full stride, nostrils flaring, muscles unfolding poetically. Not with an image of gifted riders willing powerful animals to victory. Not with an image of fans in stylish suits, colorful dresses and outlandish hats.

None of that. The image is this: A wounded horse. A wrinkled screen. An ambulance driving off into the gloaming, clods of racetrack dirt cast into the air from its wheels, sadness descending like the night.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.