By Mike Farrell
The Breeders’ Cup came up about 200 yards short of perfection.
On a glorious sun-splashed day in Southern California, divisional championships were won and lost over the course of Breeders’ Cup Saturday.
Everything was running smoothly until the end. The collective breath the industry and its fans had been holding was about to be exhaled. Racing would show the world it could raise the bar and reach perfection with respect to equine safety.
Then came the Classic and what could have been the defining moment of the weekend as Vino Rosso surged to victory. It was euphoria and pandemonium among the connections as they savored sweet satisfaction. In their view, justice was finally served after their horse’s controversial disqualification in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
The Classic soon became a footnote, an afterthought, swept aside by the tragedy unfolding about 200 yards shy of the finish line.
Mongolian Groom had been pulled up and the equine ambulance was on the way. In a matter of moments, the dreaded blue-green screen was unfurled to shield the horse from view.
The expert veterinary team swiftly stabilized the fractured hind leg and guided the stricken horse onto the ambulance for transport to the onsite equine hospital for evaluation.
Everyone feared the worst while hoping for the best.
Up in the press box, reporters awaited the veterinary update. As time dragged and darkness descended on Santa Anita, the atmosphere grew increasingly funereal.
About two hours after the Classic, the Breeders’ Cup issued a statement that Mongolian Groom had been euthanized. The injuries were too extensive. There would be no replay of Barbaro’s heroic fight to survive. It was time to end the pain.
To the credit of Santa Anita and the Breeders’ Cup, every conceivable measure had been taken in pursuit of the perfection standard. An army of veterinarians and track-maintenance experts combed through everything.
Horses that normally would have competed were scratched. Trainers complained to no avail. You’re out … that’s it.
Imperial Hint was scratched from the Sprint over a minor foot irritation. Essentially, he had a blister. By normal standards, he was race sound.
This time, nothing short of perfection was acceptable.
As Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey often points out, horses can’t recover from injuries in the way human athletes do.
On any given Sunday in the NFL, bones are shattered and joints are mangled at grotesque angles. We know that the players removed from the field on the medical cart will live, and in many instances return to play after surgery, rest and recuperation.
It’s different with horses. The equine ambulance is often a one-way journey. Equine medicine has made great strides since Barbaro but there is still a long way to go.
Earlier in Breeders’ Cup week, the Los Angeles area was hit with a wave of brushfires that destroyed homes and caused large-scale evacuations.
Now racing has its own brushfire to extinguish. The radical animal rights extremists are inflamed, fueled by Mongolian Groom’s demise. The drumbeat to abolish racing is pounding louder.
After the wave of equine fatalities at Santa Anita, perfection was the required standard for this Breeders’ Cup.
It was close … until those final 200 yards.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.