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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HorseRaceInsider has been researching the Mongolian Groom incident and its possible causes, hoping to learn how such a thing could happen in light of industry-leading safety protocols upon which further layers of veterinary precaution were added in advance of Breeders’ Cup 36.

Wishing to get confirmation of what we learned from several anonymous industry sources, we put in a call to Dr. Dionne Benson, Chief Veterinary Officer for The Stronach Group. Based at Santa Anita Park. Dr. Benson was appointed to that post earlier this year.

Dr. Benson was hired by TSG’s CEO Belinda Stronach and reports directly to Ms. Stronach. Dr. Benson’s bona fides include being former Executive Director and COO for the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.

Benson oversaw the findings of 30 veterinarians who were contracted to monitor Breeders’ Cup participants and she had last word in the decision-making process, principally who passed or failed safety protocol inspection.

As a result of the added measures, eight horses of the 163 entered in 14 Breeders’ Cup races on the evening of October 28 were scratched off the program. There are reasons to believe there should have been a ninth; Mongolian Groom.

We had several questions to ask Dr. Benson and placed a call today just passed noon, EST. We introduced ourselves, the website, and provided professional background, asking if she would answer several questions regarding Saturday’s incident.

“I cannot,” she replied. “Your questions should be directed to Breeders’ Cup.” I replied that since she would not provide answers, I would print the questions here and allow interested parties to decide for themselves.

I did not call Breeders’ Cup. They already had stated in online journals that they would stand behind the statement they issued Saturday, and would issue no further comment until noted equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage concluded an independent investigation.

Here, then, is what we learned and the questions we had for Dr. Benson and perhaps a jumping off point for Dr Bramlage’s inquiry.

One question concerns Mongolian Groom’s final workout. In our Sunday column, available on the HRI homepage, we wrote:

“One of the workouts was very slow, upsetting trainer Enebish Ganbat, who wanted five furlongs in 1:00 and got 1:02 from the exercise rider instead. It’s not unreasonable to wonder why the workout was a lot slower than planned.”

Mongolian Groom

Workouts often do not go as planned but two full seconds is worth an estimated 10 lengths–not insignificant. Further, video of Mongolian Groom’s two most recent trials were removed from the workout-video section of the XBTV website, replaced with a written description with final times only.

Full disclosure: I omitted an observation in Sunday’s column because I didn’t think it was fair to criticize the horse’s condition given the brevity of the video I saw on Twitter–four to six seconds–and not knowing the physical idiosyncrasies of the individual.

The following is an amalgam of what HRI has learned, and what we wanted Dr. Benson to confirm or deny:

Any one of 30 vets can “flag” a horse for additional inspection and report their observations to Dr. Benson. Were there any pre-race issues with Mongolian Groom? Was Mongolian Groom flagged for inspection?

If not, how could so many observers missed it? If so, did the well-meaning, comprehensively enhanced safety protocols fail?

Santa Anita had video of four horses with questionable running action: Three were scratched; the fourth was Mongolian Groom.

The horse, who suffered multiple fractures of the lower left hind cannon and upper pastern, was later observed on video as being off in his right hind.

This sounds counter-intuitive but by favoring a “bad” leg, all the pressure shifts to the healthy appendage. Did Dr. Benson review the pre-race videos? If not, why not? Did she believe that Mongolian Groom showed no untoward signs while trotting?

What happened to Mongolian Groom’s pre-race veterinary records? Were the records of the fatally injured horse waved?

If either of these questions produces an unsatisfactory response, then where is the California Horse Racing Board hiding?

The Chief Veterinary Officer at TSG tracks has the authority to scratch any horse at any time. However, none of the organizations provided details on the number of exams Mongolian Groom had prior to Saturday’s race.

Various sources have reported widely that Breeders’ Cup horses were inspected a minimum of four times. Horses showing any cause for concern would be subject to additional examination.

With respect to taking down race video, it is routine Santa Anita procedure. This practice is in place virtually everywhere. Once an incident has been acknowledged, there is no need for gratuitous sensational horror.

Even though Mongolian Groom won the win-and-in G1 Awesome Again, his sire is not Breeders’ Cup nominated and he had to be supplemented into the race at a cost of $200,000. Had he been vet-scratched, the owners would have been entitled to a refund.

There is an opportunity to share responsibility for this unfortunate incident that, by reasonable accounts, never should have occurred. Mongolian Groom should have been safe in his stall, not on the racetrack.

Did the trainer who questioned the final workout time not see a problem noticed by so many observers? And, finally, why didn’t the buck stop at the desk of TSG’s Chief Veterinary Officer?

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11 Responses

  1. JP, was your headline a sneaky Marvin Gaye song reference? You have a tendency to put song titles and movies into your work product. Not complaining, it’s pretty cool. Now I will read what you wrote. MG was an overachiever who was bought for little money and earned over 400k in his life. It’s easy to criticize but I can’t help but think he was over his head in the Classic. I’m not really sure so that could be a cheap shot but seems to me he outperformed his sales price in a pretty big way. Also had 12 starts this year which seems high by today’s standards. I know little about what I am writing so just putting it out there.

  2. True, Mal, do make the occasional song and movie references in headlines. But not this time; this was not a topic where frivolity was appropriate. An overachieving race horse is no longer with us.

    An element I can’t understand is that after the Awesome Again, the talk was of starting in the Japan Cup, in December, and the JRA helps pay the freight. But here, the spacing was shorter and paying $200,000 for the privilege of playing in very, very deep water didn’t seem to make sense. And I believed this before the race.

    I won’t second guess the decision to run in the race, but do second guess the fact he was allowed to start given the pre-event video. It was, IMO, a senseless tragedy. I still can’t fathom how the trainer and CVO missed this and, if they did not, failed to err on the side of caution given today’s atmosphere, especially in SoCal…

    1. Appreciated you calling Santa Anita. John Pricci, investigative reporter, doing yeoman work. Not joking around, I do appreciate it and it is correct and proper that answers be given. One of your fellow writers at HRRI, Indulto, had a interesting point about the ill-fated decision to run in the Classic. Prestige? Purse value? I remember William Turner getting sacked by “Slew Crew” for his objections over them wanting to have Slew in a print ad for IBM which involved the horse being brought out near The Cross Island Pkwy. Good for Billy Turner, ridiculous idea! Slew was a meal ticket, as well as a champion, and print ads for a Fortune 500 company are a bad joke. I probably have this episode slightly wrong but something did happen to cause a trainer switch. The more I think about MG the more pissed I get. I think the lure of the Breeders Cup is so strong that the owners/trainer couldn’t resist. Again, just a guess on my part. Thank you for digging deeper.

  3. Thanks Mal, but just doing my job. Any fatal injury is a tragedy, as unavoidable as it might be. What’s gnawing at me is the idea that this horse should have been scratched. Again, I don’t know the individual. Maybe he goes that way normally and “warms up out of it.” “That’s him,” as the horsemen say.

    If not, then someone dropped the ball here, big time. And considering what was at stake?

    Yes, there was the Cross Island incident but it started when the “Slew Crew” decided it wanted to go to Hollywood Park for the glamour ops and easy appearance money to show up. Turner had already pulled Slew’s shoes after the Belmont.

    Also, there was an appearance at MSG.

  4. I brought up the 200k supplemental payment and refund question on Twitter and addressed it to Breeders Cup and never received a response.
    My question was if the money would be refunded, if the connections chose to scratch.
    It seems the answer to that is NO.
    That in itself is a problem. They must have felt forced to run or lose all that money.
    I subsequently found that the horse would have been eligible for life. Big effen deal, is what I would say to that!

  5. D, I spoke with a Breeders’ Cup spokesperson I’ve known for close to 40 years and included his answer in the column above. A vet-scratch would have entitled the connections to a full refund. I read the rule from the BC website and it was ambiguous to me; that’s why I placed the phone call.

  6. Will we ever read or hear about the findings of Dr. Bramlage’s independent investigation on Mongolian Groom’s breakdown?

  7. D, you may be correct. What I stated was if MG would have been a “vet scratch.” That’s a different animal. Plus, there was a “Report,” believe it was Friday, stating from the protocol people and the trainer that the horse was sound, that he, indeed, warms up out of his crabby action, that what people saw was the result of his tying up (cramping). To that I say, unequivocally, who the hell knows? The industry is excellent at CYA, spin, and lack of transparency.

  8. Susie, the cynic in me says if it’s “good news,” you’ll read all about it. If bad, probably so, accompanied by some extenuating circumstances and possible buck-passing.

    I will say this, however, I know Dr. Bramlage to be a man of high integrity. In fact, he was the only expert “witness” during the administrative hearing of the rail-roaded Rick Dutrow–a case in which the Queens District Attorney later issued a statement indicating that the state investigator lied on the stand.

    All testimony indicated that the incriminating vials found in Dutrow’s desk draw while he was away in Kentucky were planted, either by a subsequently-fired NYRA investigative staffer who entered the Dutrow barn that morning or by the investigator himself, who entered barn office unaccompanied.

    I trust Dr. Bramlage to do the right thing. What happens after that remains to be seen of course.

    Thanks for your interest…

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