Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 3, 2019

The Headline Horse Racing Didn’t Need

A quarter of a mile. The distance of countless running tracks around innumerable high school football fields in an untold number of towns across the country. It’s not very far at all, one quarter of a mile, especially in the context of the more than fourteen miles run by a total of one hundred fifty-three horses over two days of racing at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, run Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita Park. Whether it’s the first two furlongs of a race or the last, it’s a distance that a thoroughbred racehorse will cover in a few ticks over twenty seconds. Yet in the end, the final quarter mile of the season-ending racing extravaganza may prove to be just long enough to overcome the entrenched elements of a beleaguered sport that have stood in the way of badly needed reforms. If not, that quarter mile may well be remembered as all the distance it took to reduce American thoroughbred racing to little more than a memory.

If there was a surprise in how the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic unfolded, it was the identity of one of the horses in contention for much of the race. The final start on the two day card, the Classic is the Cup’s main event, typically drawing a strong field of horses with names familiar to even casual fans. But after the excitement of a pair of Triple Crown winners in just a four-year span – American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year – the 2019 three-year-old category, the celebrity tier of horse racing, was lackluster. The Kentucky Derby had the first disqualification of a winner in its long history, and each of the Triple Crown events produced a different champion. Going into this last big weekend of racing, the lack of three-year-old stars meant that the competition for overall Horse of the Year honors was between the five-year-old turf specialist Bricks and Mortar and the four-year-old filly Midnight Bisou. The connections for both opted to run them in earlier races on Saturday’s card, with Bricks and Mortar winning the mile-and-a-half Turf despite never having run that distance, while Midnight Bisou’s streak of seven straight wins ended with a second place finish in the Distaff.

While the field for the Classic lacked superstars, it did have a few horses well-known to racing fans. The Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie missed most of last year including all three Triple Crown races with a serious injury, but the colt had an impressive four-year-old campaign and was installed as the heavy favorite. The post parade also featured another well-known four-year-old in Vino Rosso, as well as Preakness winner War of Will and Travers champion Code of Honor. But as the eleven horses raced by the Santa Anita grandstand for the first time, the horse charging up to challenge War of Will for the lead was Mongolian Groom, a 15-1 longshot that had never finished better than third over the Classic’s distance.

Still the heavily raced three-year-old gamely hung on, running side by side with McKinzie, who was stalking War of Will, around the second turn and down the back stretch. Most of the nearly 70,000 fans in the stands and the millions more watching NBC’s coverage surely expected Mongolian Groom to fade. But at first, when McKinzie accelerated past War of Will on the far turn, the longshot stayed with the favorite. Then as the horses turned for home, with McKinzie opening up a small lead and Vino Rosso charging up on the outside on the way to eventual victory, Mongolian Groom began to fade.

As the field raced past the quarter pole the television cameras followed McKinzie and Vino Rosso, with Mongolian Groom almost slipping off the left of the screen. No doubt those in the stands were focused on the race to the wire over the final quarter mile as well. That meant few noticed jockey Abel Cedillo suddenly pull up, bringing Mongolian Groom to a halt as quickly as he could. At that moment perhaps only he could guess that his mount had suffered a catastrophic injury.

Later in the evening, after the television coverage had ended and the attention of sports fans turned elsewhere, but not before the headlines had been written, came word that Mongolian Groom had been euthanized, becoming the thirty-sixth horse to die at Santa Anita in just over ten months. The Breeders’ Cup organizers released a statement that read in part “The death of Mongolian Groom is a loss to the entire horse racing community. Our equine and human athletes’ safety is the Breeders’ Cup’s top priority.”

Yet the toll continues, especially at Santa Anita. About ten horse die every week at tracks in the U.S., a fatality rate anywhere from two and a half to five times greater than that of any country in Europe or Asia. The widespread use of painkillers and performance enhancers, along with the hodgepodge of state level regulation of horse racing, sets America apart from the rest of the world as well. Only a naïf would conclude that those two facts are somehow unrelated.

While many in the industry have acknowledged the long overdue need for clamping down on drug use and standardizing regulations across the country, a few powerful forces, notably the owners of Churchill Downs and various state regulatory boards with an obvious self-interest, have successfully blocked any attempts at federal action. Meanwhile the Breeders’ Cup organizers opted to continue with plans to hold this year’s event at the track that has become the symbol of equine carnage, with a likely state referendum to ban racing altogether in California just one result. Mongolian Groom’s death would have been tragic at any venue, but at Santa Anita it instantly became the latest number in an unacceptable count, highlighting the grim challenge facing horse racing.

Like the Super Bowl and three of the four men’s major golf tournaments, sites for the Breeders’ Cup are announced years in advance. Moving this year’s races from Santa Anita would have been a logistical nightmare. But board members of Breeders’ Cup Limited, the corporate operator of the event, now have plenty of time to weigh that ordeal against the far more serious and long-lasting bad dream that didn’t end when they woke up Sunday morning. Perhaps now those who have stood in the way will stand aside and allow meaningful reform. If they don’t do so soon, racing fans and those who earn a living from the sport may soon discover that they are a day late, and a quarter mile short.

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