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

Getty Images

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.

Road to the Kentucky Derby: Forte seems dominant ahead of Florida Derby prep race


The numbers speak for themselves. Horses trained by Todd Pletcher have earned more purse money (over $455 million) than those trained by any other person in the history of thoroughbred racing. He has won with an impressive 23% of his starters, and 52% have finished first, second or third.

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, however, Pletcher becomes a mere mortal. From 62 career starters, he has won the race twice, with two seconds, and four horses who finished 3rd. Many of Pletcher’s Derby horses were longshots who were in the race primarily so their owners could have a horse in America’s biggest race. His two Derby winners, while they were reasonably backed at the windows, were far from odds-on favorites. When Super Saver won in 2010, he paid $18.00 for a $2 win ticket. Always Dreaming, his 2017 winner, was a very lukewarm favorite who returned $11.40 to win.  Many racing fans are used to seeing Pletcher’s horses win at short odds, primarily in New York and Florida. They might be shocked to find out that when Always Dreaming won the 2017 Derby, he was the shortest-odds horse that Pletcher had ever saddled in the Kentucky Derby, despite having odds just under 5-1.

RELATED: Kingsbarns goes wire-to-wire in Louisiana Derby

This Saturday, he will saddle Forte in the Florida Derby. Forte will enter the race on a four-race win streak, with those wins coming in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes. He is a 4/5 morning line favorite, and if he wins the race, he should move forward to Louisville as a very strong favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Clearly, he would be the shortest-priced horse Pletcher has ever had in the race, but that almost wasn’t the case.

In 2010, we know that Pletcher scored a mild upset in the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver. He was definitely not the best three-year-old in Pletcher’s barn. That year, he had a horse named Eskendereya, who seemed as unbeatable as Forte does now. He was set to enter the Derby off a three-race win streak. That streak included an 8 ½ length victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and a 9 ¾ length win in the Wood Memorial. The Pletcher barn was devastated when Eskendereya suffered a career-ending leg injury in training one week before the Kentucky Derby. So, instead of saddling the big favorite in the race, he took his shot with four other horses. As the chart tells us, Super Saver benefitted from a rail-skimming ride by Calvin Borel and gave Pletcher his first Derby winner.

As far as I am concerned, any discussion of Forte and the Florida Derby should begin with the concept of professionalism in a racehorse. In one respect you can call him more professional than (dare I say?) Secretariat. Big Red was brilliant, and he showed the ability to win on the engine and from off the pace. Forte’s three career races around two turns, however, are a virtual carbon copy of each other.

As a two-year-old, in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, he was in fifth place after six furlongs, sitting 2 ½ lengths off the lead, and he went on to win by a neck. That race set him up for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the Juvenile, he was again in fifth after six furlongs, sitting four lengths off the lead before he went on to win by 1 ½ lengths. It’s been said that race horses mature the most between ages two and three, and Forte’s only race this year showed that maturity. In the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, he was in fourth after six furlongs, sitting about two lengths off the lead, and then he blew by the field, going on to win by 4 ½ lengths.

RELATED: Arabian Knight off Kentucky Derby trail; will return later

This concept of professionalism in a racehorse is based in part on how well the game plan of the trainer is executed by the horse. Forte is a horse that has clearly used his fast cruising speed and his ability to relax off the pace to his advantage. Looking at those three wins he posted around two turns, they show that Forte’s natural ability allows him to idle like a Cadillac behind front-runners, and he has a growing ability to pass his competition on the far turn and power through the stretch on his way to victory. The Pletcher game plan, nurtured through the experience of 62 starts in America’s most important race, has been very convincing thus far.

Working in Forte’s favor even more is the fact that there are several horses in the race who tend to run on the front end, which should set up jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. to make Forte’s signature move to the lead as the front-runners start to tire. Skeptics might point to Forte’s journey from the #11 post as a reason to think he might have a problem here, but the fact that he relaxes in races and has a high cruising speed should allow Ortiz to get a mid-pack position to pounce from.

As for the rest of the field, the two most likely to finish underneath Forte in exotic wagers are Fort Bragg and Cyclone Mischief. Fort Bragg is a horse who sold for $700,000 as a yearling. He was formerly trained by Bob Baffert and has been transferred to the care of Tim Yakteen. He should be near the front end early and is likely to have the class to last longer that some of the other forwardly-placed runners.  Another who has a good chance to hit the board is the Dale Romans-trained Cyclone Mischief. He has raced against some of the top horses of his age group and was third to Forte in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by nearly 6 lengths. Although he was on the lead in that race, I expect him to sit a couple of lengths off the pace here. There are two longer-priced entries here that could hit the board to fill out some tickets. They are the lightly-raced Mage (fourth in the Fountain of Youth with a troubled trip) and West Coast Cowboy, who has tried hard in all three career races and is 20-1 on the morning line.

RELATED: Two Phil’s dominates Jeff Ruby Steaks

For those who think they might be able to beat Forte, consider Todd Pletcher’s record in the Florida Derby. He is the leading trainer in the history of the race with six wins, and five of those have been in the last nine years.

If there is a theme to the Derby prep season thus far, it is Pletcher, Pletcher, Pletcher. In addition to Forte, he trains Kingsbarns, the front-running winner of the Louisiana Derby, and Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapit Trice. Tapit Trice, who will run in the Blue Grass Stakes on NBC a week from Saturday, is an intriguing horse who won the Tampa Bay Derby with come-from-behind style. As talented as Forte is, we don’t know how talented Tapit Trice can be, as he seems to mature more with each start. At Tampa Bay, he was eighth in the middle of the stretch and got home to win by an easy two lengths. He is an 8-1 second choice in the most recent Derby futures pool, with Forte favored at 3-1.

It is always fascinating when the early Derby favorite has his final prep race. We’ll have to sit back and watch on Saturday to determine whether Forte will continue his dominance or if he will hit a bump in the road. His talent and his ability to duplicate his running style from race to race lead me to think that his growth and maturity will continue to be on display in the Florida Derby, and he’ll advance to Kentucky a huge favorite for America’s biggest race.

How to Watch the Florida Derby

  • Date: Saturday, April 1st
  • Time: 6pm ET
  • TV Network: CNBC
  • Streaming: Peacock

When is the 2023 Kentucky Derby?

The 149th Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday, May 6th, and will air across the networks of NBC and Peacock.

Horse racing’s national anti-doping program starts

NBC Sports

Horse racing’s efforts to clean up the sport and level the playing field take another step forward with the launch of a new anti-doping program.

It’s an attempt to centralize the drug testing of racehorses and manage the results, as well as dole out uniform penalties to horses and trainers instead of the current patchwork rules that vary from state to state.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) was created by the federal government nearly three years ago. It has two programs: racetrack safety, which went into effect in July, and anti-doping and medication control.

“It’s one standard. You can be in Kentucky, you can be in Ohio, you can be in California and you’re going to be judged by the same standard,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said.

HISA’s Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit – its independent enforcement agency – has reached agreements with all of the state racing commissions and/or racetracks that will have live racing as of Monday.

Seven of the biggest racing states – Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma – will continue to use their current staff to collect samples.

In Arizona, Illinois and Ohio, there is no signed voluntary agreement with HISA, so it contracted directly with either current staff or hired its own personnel to collect samples. Post-race testing only in New York will be handled this way.

States that have live racing after mid-April are in discussion with the enforcement agency, HISA said.

The agency will work with accredited labs in Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania and Kentucky to analyze samples.

“For the first time, racing’s labs will be harmonized and held to the same performance standards nationwide,” said Ben Mosier, executive director of the enforcement agency. “Thoroughbred racehorses will be tested for the same substances at the same levels, regardless of where they are located or compete.”

Unlike the central offices that govern the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the 38 U.S. racing states have long operated under rules that vary from track to track. Horses, owners, trainers and jockeys move frequently between states to compete. Locales would honor punishments meted out elsewhere, but inconsistencies created confusion and made it possible to game the system.

Lazarus said that in talking with horsemen they want three things from HISA: Catch the cheaters, be realistic about medication, and be aware of environmental contaminants that trainers cannot control but can trigger positive tests.

“That’s exactly what our program does,” she said recently.

HISA has been met with resistance in its short existence.

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional, saying Congress gave too much authority to the group it established to oversee the racing industry. Congress tweaked the wording of the original legislation to fix that. It also gave the Federal Trade Commission the authority to oversee HISA.

Legal challenges in Texas and Louisiana to HISA resulted in the federal appeals court preventing it from operating, so state regulations will continue to govern the sport. Racetracks in Texas and Nebraska have chosen not to broadcast their simulcast signals out of state, so HISA currently has no authority to regulate them, Lazarus said.

As a result of the ongoing legal issues surrounding HISA, the anti-doping program won’t begin in every state on Monday as Lazarus had hoped.

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “We have to change some things, we have to see how some things go.”

There’s also been vocal opposition among some in the industry over the prospect of sweeping change – as well as its cost to racetracks, horse owners and trainers, and the impact it will have on business.

“They’ve been taking away certain medications, therapy machines, things that are truly beneficial,” said trainer Bret Calhoun, whose stable operates in Louisiana, Kentucky and Texas. “They’re having the opposite effect of what they’re saying … safety of the horse and rider. They’re doing absolutely the opposite.”

Calhoun spoke earlier this month at the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association national convention in Louisiana.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was even more blunt.

“At the core of HISA is this: a handful of wealthy players wish to control the sport through a one-size-fits-all, pay-to-play scheme that will decimate the inclusive culture of horse racing,” he said at the convention.

Lazarus counters the criticism, saying, “We’re there to make racing better.”

She has said she’s aiming for transparent investigations and speedier resolutions of disputes. And Lazarus has spent much of her first year on the job trying to “overcommunicate and overeducate.”

“I’m really hopeful that the message is getting through,” she said.

There will be no trial period for infractions under the new rules. Veterinarians who administer medications to horses have had to get up to speed on the regulations as well as trainers who are ultimately responsible for what goes into their horses.

“Change I think is always hard,” Lazarus said, “and this is like seismic change.”