The death of Mongolian Groom from a catastrophic injury sustained during the Breeders’ Cup Classic has put Santa Anita under the microscope again. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had already issued a warning to Santa Anita earlier in the week that if there is another fatality, its days were numbered and the tragedy in the final race of the day has left fans reeling.
Certainly, Santa Anita had put in place extra precautions leading up to the Breeders’ Cup meet, making it’s pre-race protocols the toughest yet. Several horses were scratched from races because of concerns. According to the Paulick Report:
A team of 30 veterinarians were tasked with performing far more soundness exams on each horse than had ever been done before. Between Breeders’ Cup, The Stronach Group, and the California Horse Racing Board, the Paulick Report was told each horse would be examined a minimum of five times in advance of its race. Horses with any cause for concern would be subject to extra examinations.
That statement brings it’s own questions. Pre-race videos posted on XBTV.com of Mongolian Groom seem to indicate a pre-existing lameness behind. These two videos show the gelding jogging on the track (note that the galloping workouts look okay). The video from October 31, at least to my eyes, shows a horse that is “trantering” (trotting but breaking into a canter) but also taking some bad steps. The video from October 26th looks more serious. It shows a horse trotting with a visible unevenness behind.
Keep in mind that “soundness” for race horses is slightly different than for sport horses. There are very successful racehorses that look “hitchy” to us but which are sound despite an anomoly in their gaits. I have no idea whether this is true for Mongolian Groom, but The Paulick Report also states, “Multiple veterinary sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity say videos shot throughout the week appear to show the horse favoring his left hind leg at the trot.”
The Stronach Group has not yet provided details on the number of exams Mongolian Groom underwent prior to Saturday’s races or whether any of those exams called for further diagnostics on the horse’s left hind limb, where he sustained the fractures.
Compared to his competitors, Mongolian Groom is described as being “heavily campaigned,” with 11 starts in 2019, six of them grade 1 races. In comparison, Vino Rosso had six starts; McKinzie had seven starts; and Bricks and Mortar (who won the dirt mile) had six starts. How much of a difference did this race schedule make to his overall soundness? In years gone by, 11 starts was not considered excessive. Seabiscuit raced 35 times as a 2-year old and 28 times as a 3-year old. But times have changed. Looking back at past Breeders’ Cup classic winners, it’s hard to find one that raced more than a dozen times — total. Even the great Cigar, with 33 lifetime starts, only raced 11 times in his busiest year.
Certainly, it is time for racing to make more changes. There is a call to ban whips as well as cracking down on race-day drugs. More studies need to be done on the safety of track surfaces and we need to take a good hard look at an industry that favors early speed over endurance and longevity.