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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, August 6, 2023 – The expectations for Whitney Day 2023 were so high, inevitably too high for empathetic horse racing fans, anyone who knows and loves the game and responsible for explaining the extremes of triumph and tragedy woven into the fabric of the sport.

And in the final analysis, there is no explanation beyond the cold, hard reality that all athletes, human and equine, suffer injuries, some of whom pay the ultimate price.

Maple Leaf Mel, an undefeated filly on her way to an emphatic victory in the most important race of her life and, by extension, the lives of trainer Melanie Giddings, and owner, legendary two-time Super Bowl winning coach, Bill Parcells, went wrong approaching the wire’s foreboding shadow.

In the second act, Cody’s Wish, another in a long line of Thoroughbreds to be bestowed the sobriquet “America’s Horse,” lost a Grade 1 horse race, but only a horse race, even if it came in the fabled Whitney Stakes.

The only saving grace in the concluding act of a momentous day was  redemption made possible by the comprehensive victory of White Abarrio, scoring the biggest triumph of his career under the brilliant management of his new trainer, Rick Dutrow.

But the pall created by the tragedy that occurred two steps before the finish line of the Grade 1 Test Stakes cast a long, painful shadow over the proceedings that followed the finish of America’s greatest race for older horses not named Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The storied Whitney is the brightest symbol of the unique prestige that accompanies victory in virtually any race at Saratoga Race Course. The Grade 1 nine furlongs bestows or reinforces legendary status upon the equines and horsemen who prove classy enough to meet the challenge.

The tragic ending of the Test Stakes, the brutal sight of Maple Leaf Mel falling after suffering a catastrophic injury to her right foreleg and throwing rider Joel Rosario–fortunate to suffer only minor injuries–took the joy out of the anticipation for the big event to come.

The greatest tribute racing competitors can pay each other in Thoroughbred racing is to demonstrate humility and respect for a vanquished rival. For finishing first, Pretty Mischievous in all probability locked up the three-year-old filly divisional championship.

As the winner of her division’s most prestigious event, the G1 Kentucky Oaks on the first Friday in May, she returned to win Belmont Park’s G1 Acorn while turning back in trip and distance into a one-turn route.

Winning a third consecutive Grade 1, taking what arguably is the most desired divisional prize for three year old sprinters at the same distance as the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, was a cause for celebration by the connections of Pretty Mischievous.

To their lasting credit, for underscoring the love and respect horsemen have for their horses, rivals, and their sport, there were no traditional winner’s circle ceremonies.

The winning connections opted out of winner’s circle and trophy presentation photos. On Sunday morning, winning trainer Brendan Walsh sent the blanket of carnations to the barn of Mel Giddings which were placed over the stall webbing that housed Maple Leaf Mel.

“I just feel terrible for Melanie and that whole team,” Walsh told the Thoroughbred Daily News post-race. “That must be gut-wrenching. My filly ran her race, but that’s another story. I don’t know what to think right now.”

Said rider Tyler Gaffalione: “To be honest, I’m a bit lost for words right now. I feel so bad for the connections of ‘Mel’. It’s hard to enjoy this one thinking about that. My condolences go out to their team. Hopefully they’re able to get through this, and God bless them.”

Maple Lead Mel had an insurmountable lead strides before the finish line. In a race jam-packed with speed, her zip bossed them all from the start, taking the lead strides from the gate for a clear backstretch lead, repulsing 44.58 pressure through the turn, before increasing her advantage a furlong from the finish.

The New York Racing Assn. issued a statement later indicating that it, HISA, and the New York State Gaming Commission will review the circumstances around this incident to ensure the safest possible environment for racing and training at Saratoga Race Course.

The incident was a sad reminder of two other racetrack tragedies involving fillies, also suffered under the spotlight’s glare. Ruffian broke down after taking a narrow lead in the midst of her duel with Foolish Pleasure; the same doomed fate befell Go for Wand in her speed tussle with Bayakoa.

None of the three survived after digging deep within themselves to prove their athletic superiority. and all crashed in an identical scenario; they died on the lead.

In the last race of her life, speed filly Maple Leaf Mel made three distinct runs, unheard of for a speed horse at a sprint distance. She jumped well and opened an advantage at once. Her second move repulsed the speedy Munnys Gold at the turn.

But that third move moved disastrous. Bracing for the challenge of the ralliers to come, Rosario asked for her best and the New York-bred filly obliged, separating herself from the ralliers.

Ron McAnally’s rear-tinged words after Bayakoa took first place in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff sadly rang true once again: “They give their [all] for our pleasure.”

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⚠ Before you comment

Our staff likes nothing better than to engage with the HRI Faithful and provide a forum for interaction on horseracing and sports. In that spirit, please be kind and reasonable; keep the language clean, and the tone civil. Comments from those who cannot comply will be deleted. Thank you.

30 Responses

  1. JP–
    Thank you for continuing your important role as the conscience of horse racing and your faithful reporting on the largely grim news from this weekend in Saratoga.

    While strolling down Union Avenue on a beautifully sunny Whitney Saturday, I was greeted by placard holding protesters outside the track entrance who were decrying the untimely deaths of horses that horse racing produces. And I must admit that my view of these protesters has evolved over the years. Initially, I resented their opposition to the sport I love and their radical position that all horse racing must be stopped. And while I continue to oppose the cessation of horse racing–particularly harness racing which has an extremely low fatality rate–it is clear that if left to its own devices, the horse racing industry would simply continue to sweep equine deaths under the rug. So I actually have come to appreciate the perspicacity of these protesters and their efforts to raise public consciousness of “horse racing wrongs”.
    When the early double on Saturday was 9/11, I thought it might be a portent of catastrophe to follow–and it was. NYRA and it’s media flacks had good reason to anticipate that Saturday’s race card would generate “feel good” news reports given the heart-warming backstories on the connections of Test favorite Maple Leaf Mel and Whitney favorite Cody’s Wish. But with the tragic and gut wrenching conclusion of the Test and the triumphant return of NYRA outcast Rick Dutrow in the Whitney, these were certainly not the stories that NYRA had anticipated or hoped for.
    But it is revealing how NYRA has handled the equine deaths on both Saturday and Sunday . Firstly, NYRA’s press release issued after Maple Leaf Mel was put down can be summarized as follows: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah…..” And of course, the public needed to be “spared” the sight of both equine fatalities, so there were no replays of either race available. But isn’t the real reason to hide the ugly truth?? And even though there were inquiries posted for both races, the videos being reviewed by the stewards were not shared with the public nor were the results of the stewards’ reviews–other than eventually posting the “official” sign without comment.

    I am devastated for the connections of the noble and undefeated Maple Leaf Mel and found her death to be every bit as tragic as the brilliant and undefeated Ruffian. And I am thrilled for the connections of White Abarrio –who looked as gorgeous and well conditioned as any horse I have ever seen. And perhaps even NYRA deserves some love for heeding the jockeys’ concerns about the unsafe condition of the turf courses after the tragic death of Ever Summer on Sunday. But it is a bit telling that NYRA announced the late change with about 1 minute to post of race 6, thereby minimzing the ability of bettors to cancel their pick 5 and other multi-race bets upon hearing the news.

    Still hoping that you and the lovely Toni might be making an appearance here in Saratoga before the meet ends!

    1. Chuck, I ditto Doc’s response to your comment below. As your former Saratoga neighbor, I know of your devotion and support of horse racing both at Saratoga Race Course and Saratoga Harness. Your words, more than mine, should make an impact with NYRA hierarchy.

      The reason why your words are more impactful than mine — that of a paying customer and daily attendee — is because the NYRA press release message stated above had to be culled from other internet racing sources.

      The cost of my role as horse/horseplayer/trainer/jockey advocate, or critic as an issue warrants, apparently is nothing NYRA hears. Despite several requests, my name fails to appear on NYRA’s list of press release recipients.

      I do receive a Saratoga Daily Recap of wins and losses in jockey/trainer stat packages and which includes, of course, handle figures–of greater import to them vis a vis industry competition than their audience, and daily entries with ML odds from David Aragona, the industry’s most insightful linemaker.

      Apparently, HRI is unworthy of receiving a news release, such as Saturday’s sad reaction statement, or stable notes which I can either pass along to our audience as such,, or use the information as background-source material for advances and columns.

      The sudden off-turf announcement was lost on me and I am a ‘Saratoga Live’ devotee, except for those times I get caught in an FS1-FS2 signal switch.

      In any case, thanks for bringing the HRI Faithful up to speed on what people are thinking outside the gates of the old Spa.

  2. The Rick Dutrow story of redemption is a beautiful one, but I’m afraid judging by Twitter the past couple days, that ignorance is still running rampant. That man can train his ass off.

    And keep in mind, his record of horse health and lack of breakdowns is incredible.

    1. Doc, I can’t believe that any commentary coming from this site must still include a truthful retelling of what happened to Rick Dutrow behind the scenes that resulted in a precedent setting suspension, the longest in the history of the sport. He is a horse savant, as his colleague Dale Romans describes him, a great horseman. who will give the horses he trains the best of care and make them competitive at the highest possible levels. I know White Abarrio from South Florida of course and he was a brilliant horse for Saffie Joseph. On Saturday, however, he was the best White Abarrio he could be, an amazing performance.

  3. Doc D.–
    Thank you for your kind words! And it is so important to note the differences between Bob Baffert who has a history of equine fatalities and Rick Dutrow who does not. NYRA picked out Dutrow to use as a whipping boy in meting out a 10 year suspension.

    1. “And it is so important to note the differences between Bob Baffert who has a history of equine fatalities and Rick Dutrow who does not”

      This is FALSE. Dutrow certainly does have a far better record (i.e. far fewer catastrophic breakdowns) than Baffert, and many other trainers. But can we dispense with the falsehood that he hasn’t had any?

      As I have mentioned a number of times previously, regurgitating that false claim, or the more common “over X number of years” variation, WEAKENS the position of those who support Dutrow.

      1. When I originally researched the data for a series on Dutrow and the planting of evidence in his office desk draw, I spoke to the NYRA track vet, subsequently retired, and checking the ownerview website at the time, it indicated that none of his suffered catastrophic injury in racing or training AT NYRA TRACKS, for a period of 11 years. As memory serves, there may have been a total of four in his career at other venues. Hope this helps clarify the issue somewhat.

        As an aside, in that series, quotes were included from testimony at an administrative hearing from renown Dr. Bramlage of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, widely regarded as the leading equine surgeon in the world, that Dutrow’s sending of horses to R & R for testing because he knew something was wrong but couldn’t pinpoint the issue, saved many horses from suffering devastating injury.

        That series appears in HRI’s archives for those who may be interested.

        Thanks for the feedback Tink…

        1. Sorry, John, but it doesn’t fully clarify the issue.

          From the New York State Gaming Equine Breakdown, Death, Injury and Incident Database:

          EQUINE DEATH Racing 07/01/2009 Big Stack Belmont Park (NYRA) RF sesamoid fxs-euthanized
          EQUINE DEATH Training 05/07/2010 Break Water Edison Aqueduct Racetrack (NYRA) fx R humerus-euthanized

          So we know, unequivocally, that those two horses died from catastrophic breakdowns while trained by Dutrow at NYRA tracks.

          As for the claim that none suffered a catastrophic injury at NYRA tracks for a period of 11 years, it would presumably span from 1997-2008. While there is a possibility that the claim is technically true, NYRA records do not go back earlier than 2009. More importantly, I would argue that the claim, even if technically accurate, is not entirely honest.

          First, when making safety claims, cherry-picking (i.e. distorting) statistics is simply not an honest approach. Why should any trainer be judged solely on the runners which die on their home track or circuit? Surely they equally responsible for the health and safety of their runners at different tracks, irrespective of whether or assistants are employed to oversee a satellite string.

          Secondly, if 1997-2008 is the implied 11 year period, it would include two years (’97 and ”98) during which Dutrow started only 13 and 63 runners, respectively. Those are tiny numbers, rendering the results of those two years close to meaningless.

          Thirdly, Dutrow has never gone 11 years without a catastrophic breakdown, if one includes all of his runners. From an article written by the DRF’s Dave Grening in June of 2001:

          Lake Pontchartrain, who pulled up after fracturing his right front sesamoid in Saturday’s James B. Moseley Breeders Cup Handicap at Suffolk, had to be euthanized, trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said. “He was the second horse Sandy [Goldfarb] and I claimed,” Dutrow said. “He was a nice one. He was one of my favorites.”

          In summary, the 11 year at NYRA tracks claim cannot be fully confirmed. But even if we were to accept it as fact, its meaning is degraded significantly by taking into account how few runners he started during the first two years of that period, and given that he had at least two horses break down catastrophically at other tracks during that period (Unrequited was the second).

          Finally, I will add a similar qualification to those that I have provided previously. My point is not to suggest that Dutrow is not a relatively “safe” trainer – he is! But I maintain that dubious claims harm, rather than help his cause.

          1. Good research, thanks Tink, and assuming all your data is correct, Dutrow’s safety record is outstanding by any measure.

            Further, as far as I know, none of those mortalities were due to equine sudden death syndrome. By your count, Dutrow had fewer mortalities over a decade than some had in a year and a half.

            Anecdotal evidence has meaning. When someone with credentials as impeccable as Dr. Bramlage, an industry icon with no agenda, testifies under oath that his experience with Dutrow was one of a horseman whose due diligence and horsemanship saved lives, that’s good enough for me.

            And, for anyone interested, I had no personal dealings with Mr. Dutrow until after he provided all the testimony from his administrative hearing, where there is no presumption of innocence.

            The series provided texts between officials from the old New York Racing & Wagering Board and the Kentucky Racing Commission that strongly suggested conspiratorial activity based on untrue testimony by a NYS racing investigator–according to an investigation conducted by the Queens District Attorney’s office.

            Further, the substance found in Dutrow’s barn office was not performance enhancing, according to the sworn expert testimony of the head veterinarian for the state of Louisiana.

            The entire story resides in the HRI archives.


  4. If it will help to support the cause for John Pricci’s views to at a minimum, at least be recognized, evaluated, and responded to by NYRA, I will gladly take the action of closing out my NYRABETS account. If enough of us were to take action, we just might be listened to. I suspect the only avenue available for our collective voices at present, may very well be to simply take our involvement elsewhere. NYRA appears to comprehend only the bottom line numbers, and understands little of the compassion we retain in our hearts for all participants of the sport, both equine and human.

  5. Thanks for the thought, McD. It’s been gnawing at me for a while and when Chuck made his press release observations, it made me recall that I ever saw it in my inbox, so I vented…

    I appreciate what you’re trying to do but I cannot ask any of the HRI Faithful to inconvenience themselves and change their betting habits–don’t do that for me, please.

    I think an email or a letter to a COO, CEO, whomever, might serve a far greater purpose.

    Thanks again for the humbling, heart-warming gesture.

  6. JP–
    One more comment about NYRA. Once they were able to convince the State to issue $455 million in bonds this year on their behalf to build a new Belmont Park, NYRA secured its future for the length of the bonds. So regardless of horse racing protests or future equine fatalities, NYRA is “bomb proof” from having the State pull the plug on horse racing for the foreseeable future. However, there is one caveat to the foregoing–PETA has filed a lawsuit contending such financing is unconstitutional. So if PETA prevails, as the saying goes, “all bets are off”……

  7. Wait a minute – YOU of all people don’t get NYRA press releases? How is that even remotely possible? You have an active racing website that is read by some pretty sharp horseplayers and decades long fans of NY Racing. Not to mention being the most well known racing writer in NY seemingly forever. Oh and there is one other little bitty thing: You LITERALLY helped create the template that started what racing TV coverage in NY has subsequently become. Your name rings bells for anyone who grew up in the shadows of Aqueduct and Belmont. The only conclusion I could form is that NYRA is both unhappy with your tell it as I see it commentary (good or bad), and the people now there in their PR department have an alarming level of ignorance when it comes to local NY horse racing lineage.

  8. It feels great to read your aficionado readers’ comments. It is a lot better than those overpaid mouthpieces who just spiel for twenty plus minutes between races and then pick the obvious top two, or maybe three, favorites, race after race. When the late changes were announced by Wolf deferring to the racecaller, NONE of the television stiffs, that is, a formeer longtime NY area rider, a Hall of Fame rider now playing agent and expert analyst, the Mouth who never stops talking, worse than an angered mother in law and a present horse trainer with a good winning reputation , and none of them dared to say Anything, like if they were ordered to keep quiet, or lose their cushy,bs filler of a job between commercials, about the Sudden, last literal minute decision from who knows where and by whom ! Men ? Put a skirt ,lipstick and high heels on !! Gutless, non reactions ! And then someone wonders why some viewers call them Stiffs !?!?! Congrats on your Abarrio pick, and someone else’s Nassau area code pick, 516, the cold triple, after all the dust settled. That was my best week even if I skipped several races. Sometimes, we have to step back, esp. when wrong decisions are made or non made, and when there still are $ 10K claiming races running upstate SARATOGA, not Finger Lakes ( !!) in the year 2023… After a minus 6 race streak hit a $ 75 cold exacta many times, as those empty shirts still pick the top choices race after race… Big Deal! Who needs them ? Seriously !!! Stay in your lane..

    1. JG, you have made it clear ad nauseum that you don’t care for TV racing analysts at Fox or Fan Duel. Your criticism of their only picking favorites is unfair, simply because it isn’t true. One needs to listen carefully.

      And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with picking favorites if that’s your honest assessment of the past performances.

      Further, in this age of popular horizontal wagers of every stripe–like you, I prefer verticals–a short-priced single is valuable–only if it wins, of course.

      1. I know that this is your toy ,kind of ,but that does not mean that you have the right to admonish anyone with a different, and proven, opinion. Defending your field of interest, and your bethren, is one think but denying facts is different. Yrs ago I’d have a daily chart of the NY area handicallers( NYP, NYDN, Newsday and the DRF consensus) and most of the time like , over75% of the Total Consensus was very similar to the Morning Line projections! That was one reason why I’d add the, usually different, Trackman selections to the total. Now, with the continual demise of tabloids and their sports sections this Consensus cannot be done. Even the DRF does not have several pickers like yrs ago. Now , it is. So Easy to predict that these ” public selections” are nothing but a copy of the everpresent ML ! Anyone can do that ! So, to me that renders these ‘ personalities’ just about useless! Their predictions are so… Expected, predicted, obvious ! Maybe I’m touching a sore spot, but after so many yrs, you cannot go on as if there’s something new since anybody can find the Beyer’s, and other forms of analytical input,, just as the Morning Line person has them. What then, does a ” talent , horse analyst, handicapper, etc,” bring that is new at post time? They don’t even mention One Big clue that I legitimately follow , and has been very $ucce$$ful in many races.. which I ‘ ll keep to myself. After all of these years, at our age, with our experience, let us call it right: We aren’t going to fool anyone ! You do know better, but at least I cannot put you into that blender ,.. and neither were most former Newsday handicappers . They , you, stood out, but this group, as most other television fillers ,Do Not. Check the Morning line: Hear the pick: Repeat

  9. I find the paddock and warmup observations of Acacia Clement, Maggie Morley, Richard Migliore, Ande Biancone and Caton Bredar, to name a few, I find to be invaluable. I don’t agree with all their observations–the essence of what we all do–but they provide information in real betting-time that is unavailable until the runup to the race itself. The mute button is available for anyone not wishing to listen. Judging by the amount of winning days you reference, you’re doing just fine without them… so ignore them.

  10. You are avoiding the numeral facts that winning at a 33% average , at an under $5 clip, will lead to financial ruin. It’s a Catastrophic way to do Any business, even the subjective ,secretive sport-hobby- addiction of horse racing. I don’t care who says what on the screen. I’m usually observing the board(s) ! Just the Facts, the winning habit, is what really counts to me. Losing 66% of the time is suicidal ! That’s it ! PS: You picked Abarrio days ahead of the his winning race. Didn’t you feel great beating the top two favorites? Would you have felt the same if your pick would have been the odds on favorite ? Of course NOT ! That is my point!! So long.

  11. I’m not avoiding, just don’t see things as you do, that’s horse racing. And let me correct you for the record.

    I indicated in a comment to Anthony that if Cody’s Wish were to be beaten, it would be by White Abarrio, not Zandon.

    On WNYT-TV, where the goal is to pick the winner of the feature, I chose Cody’s Wish. You will see an example of the format we use for their Saratoga selections in the News and Free Race Selections tabs.

    We will begin reprinting those nightly selections here as the second half of the meet begins–after the selection is first revealed on TV.

    FYI, I boxed the WA-CW exacta and made a saver straight play on WA at an unusually generous 10-1 (6-1 forth choice on early line).

    Whatever you decide JG, good luck…

  12. Thanks for your reply but we’re not here to try to change anybody’s mind…Too late for that !!… Just stepped in to , once again, wonder what the heck is going on with Fox, either 1,2 or which ever other they lackaisically show ” Live from Saratoga”! Got home away from the humid 93F plus humidity weather to spend some time watching, playing betting a few NYRA races. The guide stated that the ‘ show’ was from 1 pm to 6:30 pm. Got in at 4 pm and had a glimpse on the screen about ” programming” notice, and then saw poker players with masks on.. which more than likely mean that it is and old show- program.. So, what happened to the Spa Races ? Cancelled, once again ? Keep on lowering my expectations in just about most things but unless something tragic happened at the Upstate track, I Have to get a new Channel Venue with more responsibility, care and professionalism than this three letter outfit. I ‘ ll check the wire services for more input. PS: No matter what our ‘ differences” are, or were, I do not think that I have Ever included you , John Pricci, in any group of chalk pickers. Not after those yrs checking you out in the Newsday sports pages, not today.

    1. I’m no fans of the way Fox ping pongs Saratoga Live either JG, but today’s snafu was not of their doing. It was reported that a tree fell on Union Avenue downing a power line, knocking out power at the racetrack and the immediate area immediate Saratoga area.

      My surmise about the cancellation was that the horse’s were in the paddock when the lights went out and not knowing if and when power would return, a decision was made to send the horses back to their barns, a good call in my view.

      1. Ok,how about having a running notice at the bottom of the screen,even for just a couple of minutes? Too logical,pragmatic ? ….Any of your input on ( Captain) O Rourque about the Pick gimmick mess ? No wonder players are getting more disgusted! What’s a $100 K feed on Saturday going to do to make up for their Faux Pas ? ” Lipstick on a Pig” comes to.mind…

        1. This probably would be more suitably addressed to David O’Rourke at the New York Racing Association

  13. Tragic incident, there are no good places for a horse to break down. Unfortunately, this happen at the very worst possible place. Deepest sympathies to the horse and all the connections.

    1. Well said Anthony. I hear that the connections are still devasted by Saturday’s events. My guess is that this hurt will never be forgotten by those involved with this super talented filly. Her speed seemed boundless, her future limitless…

  14. Did not play today, too many scratches and changes but the Seventh race was a good example of why skepticism stays afloat in this sport. A Two horse race, of course between , possibly the two top trainers in the east coast… With a purse over some $ 140 K the race went on even if there was a ” Shortage”,like yesterday, but this time it was about horses. It’s like watching a duel without either one getting hurt, kind of Wrestling, or Rasslin’ , as they call it down south. Should have cancelled it. It would have looked less suspicious. It DOES one wonder who’s Really running this Sport of Kings( and rich connections). Everyone knows the , unmentionable, rules, after all it is a ” Club”,a very private one where the cards that the bettors are being dealt are the sole propriety of the dealers. Next bet !!

  15. Today was “rinse and repeat”at Saratoga..a very sad ending to the brilliant,undefeated filly, New York Thunder. So many similarities to the ill-fated Maple Leaf Mel. I left after the Jerkens as did many others.

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