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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, August 27, 2023—Travers 2023 was a great day for the women of Thoroughbred racing, Jena Antonucci having her uber talented gray colt put an exclamation mark on her season–a Belmont first followed by a Midsummer Derby’s Dream.


Once more, Antonucci displayed masterful horsemanship bucking history, again, by eschewing the well-worn Haskell and Jim Dandy paths to a Travers winner’s circle. A 77-day layup—just what she thought her colt needed.

At 6:20 pm Saturday,  Jena Antonucci became the trainer this year’s top three-year-old male, one who looms as one of the favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in the fall.

For those keeping score, November 4 is 64 days from today. Based on the Travers result, the timing could not be better.

Javier Castellano made it all possible for Arcangelo and Antonucci, engineering perfect trips for his talented, still developing, improving colt. It was said he was lucky to get a rail run on Long Island. Maybe, maybe not.

But over a track made wet by a strong, albeit short, mid-card downpour, Castellano and Arcangelo made their own good trip, Castellano, dare we say, winning the 154th Travers on the first turn., his seventh victory in the summer classic.

Knowing that Irad Ortiz likely wanted to get outside with an uncharacteristically rank Forte, Castellano darted inside that rival at midturn, saving all the ground heading into the backstretch. That done, he allowed a three-ply duel to develop in front of him, still saving ground but in the clear.

Winning time came at mid-far turn. Castellano tipping out into the 4-path and, after straightening away, kicked clear, taking all drama out of the stretch run to follow.

His job done, Arcangelo eased himself up, allowing Disarm to get closer at the end but to no avail, leaving the impression there’s more where that came from. Athletic and strong, Arcangelo’s future is very much in front of him.

Arguably, from a performance perspective, the equine star of the day was Echo Zulu, whose maturity at four has turned her into a more complete racehorse. Florent Geroux was content to let his champion do her thing on her terns–damn the champion to her outside who was taking the Ballerina to her.

Goodnight Olive was sharp, outbreaking the field from her outside slip, putting pressure on Echo Zulu throughout. But when Flo asked, Echo Zulu obliged, making her a perfect 4-for-4 at the Spa and 3-for-4 at the trip, the same distance she must negotiate in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint.

As stated, when Flo finally pushed the button at headstretch, Echo Zulu separated herself from the 2022 filly sprint champion with disdain. Watching this, I consciously held my breath until after the leader reached the finish post. 

The race was over, the result foregone inside the furlong pole, but was there more carnage in store for owners, trainers and jockeys, the 48,000 fans on-track, and the millions watching on television? Mercifully, thankfully, there was not.

So as for day’s other headline-making event, I’m out of reasons, explanations, rationalizations and platitudes; out of excuses for what happened again, what feels like a tragedy du jour after the second mercy killing of the day had been performed, a Midsummer Nightmare.

The breakdown and subsequent death of New York Thunder was eerily similar to the fate met by Maple Leaf Mel who, like New York Thunder, was in the midst of making her Grade 1 debut a winning one and, unfortunately, the similarity didn’t end there.

Maple Leaf Mel, like New York Thunder, was a speed horse, undefeated entering the most important race of her young life. To win, Mel needed to outrun all the speed lined up against her, just like New York Thunder was doing yesterday, retaining enough stamina to hold all ralliers safe.

Not only did Mel outrace the speed but did so while also widening her advantage, as New York Thunder did yesterday, when suddenly she took a bad step and suffered a life-ending fracture. it was all too much for her; too much pressure, too much strain, for her or New York Thunder to survive.

Horsemen talk all the time about reaching the bottom of their runners but the fast ones, the great ones, test their limits every time they run without being asked; the best of the best, the gift of gifts.

The only redeeming occurrence was Tyler Gaffalione, who on the night before the first Grade 1 of Travers Day won the million-dollar Charlestown Classic before upsetting Elite Power, America’s top ranked racehorse, in the Forego, escaping serious injury and was cleared to ride today.

The sudden downpour in between two championship-defining sprint events may have been the perfect storm for death in the afternoon. New York Thunder buckling while racing on what appeared to be the fastest lanes on a sealed racetrack.

Sealing a racetrack is the act of packing the surface down with large wooden boards, known as floats, which trail behind the tractors routinely used to maintain dirt surfaces.

The procedure is meant to squeegee the track dry as an aid to the drying-out process and is historically preferred by jockeys whose wish it is to race over uniform ground. It is a nod to safety, but the “firm” ground often leads to a bias favoring speed horses, often resulting in faster, early pressure.

Sealing racetracks is common practice throughout the industry but the time may have come for this process to be tweaked. It may be easier to skip over wet sand-and-loam but it is also more jarring than racing over a harrowed, “open” racetrack.

Track operators, in their zeal to dry out a wet surface as quickly as possible, especially if there is a main event such as the Travers to follow, may need to rethink the procedure and invest in safer alternatives to sealed dirt.

To that end, all tracks should have an All-Weather surface as a potential failsafe. Gulfstream Park, in a nod to seasonal daily rainfall, installed Tapeta Track several years ago. A similar AW surface presently is being installed at the “new” Belmont Park, scheduled to reopen in 2024.

Prior to the Ballerina, Steve Laymon, spokesman for First Row Partners, the group that campaigns defending filly sprint champion Goodnight Olive, was quoted pre-race saying he was pleased the track had been harrowed.

“We’re so glad they’re harrowing the track, you know it was sealed for the last race and we’re disappointed in what we saw. We wanted to protect [Goodnight Olive], she’s been so good to us and we want to take care of her,” Laymon volunteered.

On-set during the Fox broadcast, trainer Tom Amoss was asked about Laymon’s comment by host Laffit Pincay:

“It might be nothing more than coincidence,” said Amoss, “but I think [Laymon] wants to see the track opened up to the harrowed look, and maybe it’s not quite as quick underneath, but I don’t know if it’s going to make any difference one way or another.”

A subsequent investigation is likely to come, but it’s highly unlikely to assess whether any causation will be ascribed as to the reason why New York Thunder’s catastrophic ankle injury became the 14th equine fatality–12 in racing or training–of this Saratoga summer.

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14 Responses

  1. JGR says:
    August 26, 2023 at 9:52 pm
    When a horse dies on the track on his way to a wire to wire victory to remain unbeaten in five lifetime races as his numbers chart looked like as good as a few Stocks on Wall Street, something goes wrong and, that was it, the end of a glorious equine athlete with a very promising future. After a couple of prolonged commercials the stiff shirts are, once again left with the same automatic, robotic ‘ sorry feeling’ that comes out distant, insincere. Why couldn’t they and the production crew spend a lonely minute or two on NY Thunder’ s accomplishments? We all know that they have disposable time between races! No, just turn the page and let her cameras stay on us meanwhile. If it were a bench warmer in another sport, the game might have been called off. The person connected with Bolshoi Ballet mentioned that it was another Galileo winner, one of many, I’m sure, going long and on Turf, but like I mentioned a few days ago, what about Sadler Wells, one of the best of all time, how come he does not mention that horse’ s breeding? Sometimes, at least in big races one wonders what happened to some horses that did not run well. Why can’t the production spend a minute to go over the top bet horses, showing what happened to each one? Watching experienced riders like Castellano and Velazquez, besides rewinding glorious younger days, it is like, Eureka, finding a very comfy pair of old shoes that still fit well. Can’t find the right words for these two gentlemen… Maybe. Classy, reliable Ms. Antonacci: when I noticed that Arcangelo was the favorite, long before post time, something felt different. I could not put her out of the exacta not even boxed with Forte ad Disarm, my two only other horses that I picked days ago. The gimmick paid some $70 thanks to the big $ pool with Forte being used\overused for first and second.

  2. The prior comment was edited for brevity and context

    JG there’s no need for me to expound on your points made. And I agree, later in the broadcast, time should have been made for some kind of tribute, remembrance of New York Thunder. But I must take some exception to your criticism. I yelled NO, NOT AGAIN, turned to my wife and said “I don’t envy the talent on set right now.” Indeed, a series of commercials followed while everyone caught their collective breath.

    I sat where those men sat yesterday for years, indeed Harvey and I putting on a program following the death of Mike Venezia, killed while doing his job. At least we had the luxury of time and VOT.

    So then how does one react to unspeakable tragedy in real time? What are the right words? What can I say that doesn’t sound like lip service? How do I express empathy without being maudlin?

    Further, it’s a live broadcast and the show is supposed to build to its climax, which became for many an anticlimax to fatal injury that occurred twice in the same place just weeks apart on one of racing’s biggest stages. What is the right thing to say, or do?

    1. Maybe I was wrong on expecting more than the stock response from a former rider who is in the Hall of Fame, from a top active trainer who is winning at a good percentage and from a retired long time ,NY based jockey, all of whom have been on television long enough to be able to express their thoughts on these repeating problems. I just hope that ” biting the Hands that feed you” is not one of them, and that they are Free to say what was in heir minds, and hearts, not just after that fatal injury ,but always. Maybe, Dignity and Respect are already out of that ( television) window. Nobody was asking for a eulogy, just a dignified good bye,with a replay or two, of that unbeaten,equine athlete. .Thanks for your reply.

      1. Well-reasoned response and I cannot disagree with your latest position on this. You are right. But I’m sure there are some restraints placed on the talent as to what they can say. The Hall of Fame rider does speak his mind — reference his comments on the stewards — and the trainer seems to walk the fence pretty deftly. It may be unreasonable to deliver Emmy-winning performances but expecting analysts to speak their minds is not. I know people who have been fired by NYRA for less…

  3. Chuck+from+saratoga says:
    August 26, 2023 at 9:46 pm Edit

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

  4. Chuck, not sure how I would have reacted were I on-track. I suppose a journalist would have felt compelled to stay, don’t know.

    It sure stopped Travers Day in its tracks…

    1. Chuck / John:

      I was at Saratoga on Whitney Day, when Maple Leaf Mel went down 2 steps before the wire. I stayed. I came back the next day when Ever Summer was making the winning move in a 1 3/8 mile turf event and fell. I stayed. Yesterday, I was watching from home as New York Thunder was thundering home – a sure winner – when disaster struck again. Had I been at the track, I would have walked out.

      Full disclosure: I wagered on Ever Summer and New York Thunder, including exotics. The cashier would handed me many dollars each time. Yet, I felt just as bad after Maple Leaf Mel’s misfortune. Yes, we’re there to enjoy the experience with some of of the most amazing performers anywhere on Earth – equine and human – but the cash becomes secondary to everyone’s safety when the featured entertainment loses their life. Sadly, I need more time to recover before I return to the game. I totally understand why folks would leave the track early after witnessing any of the above 3 events.

      What will happen next ??? Will the meet be stopped, effectively scratching the last 6 dates ??? There’s no way to tell today. With breakdowns on all Spa surfaces, the meet should be halted, in my opinion. This is from an avid horse lover, horseplayer and Saratoga attendee every year since 1985 – except for the 2020 pandemic year when fans could not attend.

      1. There are the wagering dollars that you referenced, but a lot of folks have made reservations that they can’t get back. Those who rented homes for the meet sure not certain to get a refund. The horses that were shipped in for the last week at great, the continuity of the remainder of the racing year in all divisions. I don’t know the answer.

        As expected, PETA sent two emails calling for the racing to stop. Is it the right thing to do? Morally, yes. But pragmatism, sadly, rules.

        1. John, it would seem wise for NYRA to get out ahead of this and suspend Saratoga’s racing before “they” force the move. The they could be any combination of the NYS Gaming Authority, HISA, PETA Protestors, Politicians, who knows ??? I’m very accustomed to large crowds forming at the Union Avenue Gate, just not the ones who are ready to put NYRA’s upstate racing season into a choke-hold. As for me, Labor Day plans to visit The Old Spa for the 3rd time this year have been scratched. These break-downs have had the expected adverse reaction from this long-time fan of the game.

  5. JP–
    One of the adjectives that has been most commonly used to describe the 2023 Saratoga meet is “snake-bitten”. I think there must be a better adjective than that, but I leave that to you–words fail me right now.
    I know how wonderful yesterday was for Travers winner Arcangelo and his connections, But the events of yesterday reminded me of that old line “But other than THAT Mrs, Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
    I went over to the races a bit belatedly today just to get out of the house with the hopes of replacing the sad thoughts of yesterday with something more positive. And it was a lovely sunny afternoon for a change –with no breakdowns.
    So it is time to recalibrate the workplace safety sign at Saratoga to proudly proclaim “1 consecutive day without a fatal accident”

  6. This long term fan of the sport/game had one adverse reaction too many. When I lost interest in the Triple Crown races I knew it was over.

  7. One loyal long-time fan and visitor and one-long-time local fan. Both seem to be looking for the same thing; some significant outward sign of respect for the 14 horses that lost their lives during the meeting. Wonder what the final of the Saratoga meet has in store?

  8. John,
    Really not much to add to describe my feelings of Travers Day except maybe “it was the best of times and the worst times” for the great sport of thoroughbred racing in New York State.
    Who could have imagined that probably the two most important problems which have to be addressed in racing, would show up Saturday?
    The first being the stewards( which understandably wasn’t addressed ). Watching the first race replay a half dozen times, I as an old timer can not come up with a logical reason how an inquiry and a jockeys objection was not even called. Is there a way the public can get an explanation when something so blatant happens can be posted somewhere?
    At least we had an old time Hollywood ending. Thank G-d.

    1. Mark, I can only say that, rightly or wrongly, more latitude is given in races involving lightly raced horses, primarily maiden events. THat’s been the guiding principle from the time I learned about that philosophy.

      Having said that, Irad came out several paths to meet the onrushing rushing favorite whose rider used a right handled crop to, in my view, keep his ground, hold his position. Would not have been surprised if there were a DQ.

      I might have taken the winner down for initiating the contact, but that’s just me. It certainly was close enough to have gone either way in my view.


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