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.”