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.