The first time I considered the concept of “Triumph and Tragedy” at a racetrack, I was sitting in the front row, high above the sand and loam of Belmont Park.
It was October 27, 1990. My Newsday colleagues and I looked down in horror through watery eyes as the great Go for Wand struggled to stay on her feet.
The event was so horrific that I walked into the press box lounge where Willie Shofner kept a bottle of whiskey, presumably for occasions such as this.
I looked up and on the television monitor was Ron McAnally, trainer of Distaff winner Bayakoa. McAnally was crying and not because his great race mare had just repeated her 1989 victory in this race.
He choked on his words, in tears, as he spoke to a national television audience: “They give their lives for our pleasure.”
As it turns out, Breeders’ Cup 36 could not go the distance, stopping a quarter-mile short of ending a day filled with the kind of celebratory emotion that made grown men and women cry, for love of the game.
But the fairy tale ended when all the unprecedented safety protocols and 30 of the racing world’s best veterinarians could not put Mongolian Groom back together again.
This is a fact of racing life, one that cannot be stopped. “Part of the game,” the saying goes. That may be keeping it real but don’t expect an under-educated, well-intentioned public to understand and accept that truism.
At this time and in this place, tragedy had the last word. Lost in an act of a humane mercy killing was the dominating performance of Vino Rosso, the crowning achievement of Bricks and Mortar, the uncommon speed, versatility and heart of Mitole, the best sprinter in the world.
Also lost was the supremacy of the super trainer and the super rider, apt descriptions for the most successful horsemen but with completely different connotations.
Irad Ortiz Jr. won back-to-back titles in his last two rides and the lion’s share of $10 million from the Turf and Classic; four wins for the event, all for different outfits. Man-Oh-Chad saddled his four Cup winners at Santa Anita, albeit over a two-day period.
Also on display was the inescapable reality of track bias, tight turns and wide post draws with its built-in unfairness to stakeholders and horseplayers alike. Also eclipsed was an “I Am Racing” moment shared by a father and daughter on national television.
The only thing missing was an appearance by the presumptive leader of America’s widely acknowledged glamour division; maladies, circumstances and bad timing that kept Derby-first Maximum Security on the sidelines.
But everything changed, lost in the wake of a Breeders’ Cup announcement: “The death of Mongolian Groom is a loss to the entire horse racing community,” the statement read.
“Our equine and human athletes’ safety is the top priority. We have worked closely with Santa Anita leading up to the World Championships to promote enhanced equine safety.
“Santa Anita has implemented numerous industry-leading reforms to enhance the existing health and safety measures.” Breeders’ Cup also stated that renowned equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage would conduct an independent investigation. Those findings will be published.
The above statements referenced the fatal breakdown of Mongolian Groom in a race which Todd Pletcher, who never has left a T un-crossed or an I un-dotted, efforted to fill the Classic hole in his resume.
To accomplish that he conjured a plan in the spring, shipping Vino Rosso to Santa Anita for the G1 1-1/4 miles Gold Cup, testing the surface in what was a very early Classic prep. The notion worked then and worked again yesterday, only more impressively.
Before being informed of Mongolian Groom’s death, Pletcher explained how safety and caring for horses was the focus for everyone involved in the event, precautions that worked until the day’s final race.
“It’s something we were all very concerned about coming in and anxious not only for running in huge races like these but also hoping everything would go smoothly. I think everyone took every possible precautionary measure.”
Cruelly ironic, it all went well until the last fateful two furlongs of America’s most prestigious race for the world’s best horses, ages three and up. The enhanced protocols resulted in eight program scratches over two days, including several high-profile entrants.
The morning after had an entirely different vibe, however. By then the Twitterverse was fully engaged. Trainer Graham Motion had his usual thoughtful observations on the events of Saturday.
After hitting the high notes, Motion wrote, in part: “Sadly it’s not a perfect world and we put too much on ourselves if we think we can eliminate every single injury, horses like humans get hurt.
“Horses had been supervised all week in the most thorough manner I have ever seen and many positive changes were made in the lead-up to the Breeders’ Cup. We must continue that path and make the sport the best it can be.”
On the flip side were supporters of the activist website horseracingwrongs.com. Social media followers were directed to the site with the suggestion “watch Mongolian Groom be beaten into the ground to his death.”
A review of the tape with the headline “Lash, lash, lash, snap, dangle, death,” shows that jockey Abel Cedillo waved the crop at his mount right-handed, struck him once, just before Mongolian Groom took the fateful bad step.
Cedillo quickly took a hold at that juncture, gathered his mount, trying to slow him down. Though Cedillo aggressively pounced on the pacesetters in the backstretch run, the talented young rider did nothing wrong in the immediate aftermath of injury.
Understandably, but unfortunately lacking in transparency, XBTV lost little time in replacing the video of Mongolian Groom’s recent workouts with text that recorded the trials with their workout times, but no images.
One of the workouts was very slow, upsetting to 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.
So now a battle is joined once again, one commenter stating on horseracingwrongs.com “Fuck you gamblers.” Another read “You ugly scumbags who work in this torture chamber….how do you live with yourselves?”
Yet another exhorted web host Patrick Battuello to “go on 60 minutes!!! No fooling around, go BIGTIME!!!” Battuello responded “we’re trying.” The barrage continued: “Heartless bastards…” “You are all amoral animal abusers…..period.”
By 1 pm, there were 50 comments on a virtually unknown website and finally, this: “All California politicians including Gov. Newsom needs to immediately enact SB-469.
“Please, everybody call, email, Tweet these politicians and demand that this shuts down, so that not one more racehorse will die for this frivolous unnecessary gambling venue.”
This is what America was saying 15 hours after Vino Rosso ran the race of his life and presumably earned an Eclipse Award for best older dirt male.
In a touching moment matched only by the Eurton family in the final Breeders’ Cup race on Future Stars Friday, Vino Rosso co-owners Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola paid homage to Jimmy Crupi, a Monmouth horse trainer turned legendary bloodstock agent, farm manager and breaker of yearlings. Crupi passed early this year.
Said Viola: “I think Todd and Mike would agree the person who oversees the breaking and initial training of a horse is probably as critical as any part of the team.”
Addressing Crupi’s spirit post-race, Viola continued “This one really was because of, and for, you.”
It was the final touching moment in an event that routinely produced the warmest, raw emotions every 30 minutes. But then, as Motion reminded us, it’s far from a perfect world.