Saratoga Race Course saw another of its young entertainers killed Saturday when Heading to Toga, three, crashed and burned at the end of the 1st race. The fatal injury, I’m sure, was gruesome (broken sesamoids, torn ligaments and tendons), but NYRA won’t let us see that, for the official replay stops just short of the “spill” that occurred after the finish line. The cleverly christened equine child is now but an anonymous hunk of dead flesh at some rendering plant or crematorium. In fact, except for a fifth-place footnote to a meaningless August claiming race and a line on her owner’s 2014 tax return, it will be as if she never was. 2013 Saratoga Death Count: 3.
From Argentina comes word that two Thoroughbreds tested positive for oxazepam, a drug more commonly used for anxiety and insomnia in humans, after separately winning Classic races on August 3rd. Oh, and one of the horses, Koller, also reportedly had cocaine in his system. Cocaine. The horses’ trainer, Martins Alves, is suspended while awaiting a retest on August 29th.
To state the obvious, this is not the same as Lawrence Taylor doing blow on gameday. What a fully autonomous athlete does to his body is really none of my concern. What a trainer does to his enslaved racehorse, however, is, and giving him cocaine should qualify and be prosecuted as animal cruelty.
There is a worn, broken halter that hangs just inside the entrance to my barn. While a variety of equine tack is certainly ordinary and expected in one’s barn, this particular halter looks out of place. It hangs alone on a wooden peg, across from a planked wall with a tidy assortment of gleaming leather bridles and colorful halters. Every day when I walk into the barn, my eyes are immediately drawn to that tattered old halter. And every day, a plain brown mare with kind eyes is remembered and honored once again. She was “Claims My Name,” and like her broken halter that has a special place in my barn, this broken mare will always have a special place in my heart.
It was the first week of November 2007, and Great Lakes Downs was ending its meet and closing down for good. Owners and trainers were hastily packing up equipment and horses, leaving the small racetrack in western Michigan and heading south for winter meets. We at the rescue were making daily visits to the track. Over a nine-day period, 27 horses that were too lame to continue racing or had become non-competitive were loaded onto our trailers, leaving the racetrack for good and hopefully beginning new lives. On one of those last days at the track, I was approached by an owner/trainer about taking two broodmares from a farm where he would lay up horses over the winter. After a quick phone call to the farm owner, arrangements were made to pick up the broodmares the next day. Although most “unwanted” horses were donated to the rescue, both of these older mares needed to be purchased by the racehorse rescue organization for $250 each.
I had been given the names of the mares and the night before I was to pick them up I did a little research on them, curious as to who they were and where they had been. Claims My Name, I found, was a Kentucky-bred, and although her sire’s sire was the great Mr. Prospector, she was very modestly bred. She had run 50 times in her racing career, and in doing so had traveled to Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Michigan. Her races were always “cheap” races, earning only $19,444 for her three wins, three places, and five shows. No one ever claimed her, but her ownership had changed frequently through private sales. Her last race was in February of 1999 at Tampa Bay Downs, when she came in eighth out of nine horses, over 13 lengths behind the winner. And that was where the trail of her life ended. There was no record of her after that last race, and even the Pedigree On-line Thoroughbred database had no progeny records for her.
I was filled with uneasiness the morning we were scheduled to pick up the mares. I wondered if the farm owner shared the same lack of care and concern for the horses at her farm as the trainer she took horses in for. This trainer’s horses were typically underweight and signs of lameness were usually present. He was also known for leaving his horses on the hot walker for several hours on hot summer afternoons while he visited the local bar. I prepared myself for a disturbing morning.
The farm was small with three or four tiny paddocks, all of them muddy with no dry areas for the horses to stand on or lie down on. Two strands of wire strung from rusty, leaning T-posts made up the fencing. The paddock closest to the road had six or seven Thoroughbreds in it, and although there was no hay available to fight over, one skinny gray gelding was kept in a corner and away from the herd by a more aggressive Thoroughbred, still wearing his racing plates. There was no shelter in any of the paddocks, although the paddock by the road had a tarp lying next to four wooden posts, so I surmised it had once been suspended on the posts, making a “roof” of sorts. The one, small barn on the property had no stalls, only some bales of hay and assorted debris, so it was obvious the horses on this farm lived without any shelter in the harsh, Michigan winters. I shivered looking at the ribby horses, imagining them trying to stay warm in the frigid months that lay ahead.
Claims My Name was not in this paddock, but was in the back of the property with the other broodmare and each of their foals. The mud was even deeper in this paddock, almost to the knees of the mares, and as in the other enclosures, no shelter was available. At this point, it took literally biting my tongue to keep from asking the farm owner how she could justify the horrible conditions the horses were forced to live in. But questioning her would risk offending her and being asked to leave, and thereby ruin the chances of taking the two mares, so I kept quiet.
None of the four in that back paddock moved while we stood at the gate, clucking to them in encouragement to come towards us. Again, no hay was present, so I was silently surprised that the two moms and foals didn’t come up to investigate, at least to find if we had food to offer. All were filthy, with matted manes and tails, and all stood with their heads low, showing no interest in our presence.
Finally, the farm owner waded into the mud to retrieve Claims My Name. Since the foals had not yet been weaned, I was expecting some commotion as the mare was being taken from the others and brought to the gate. But if her youngster was coming alongside or not, I was not aware. All I could see was this muddy, thin mare attempting to walk, one hind leg moving grotesquely with each labored stride.
When she was brought through the gate and onto dry ground, the reason she struggled to walk was something I had never seen before. I had loaded horses onto my trailer with broken legs and torn tendons, gaping wounds and bloodied injuries, but never something like this: Her hoof was coming off her leg. I took the lead rope from the farm owner, continued towards the trailer and over the screams in my head, all I heard was silence. This suffering mare never called for her baby, never turned back to see the little filly she was leaving behind, never stopped her awkward, forward movement. Head hanging low, she quietly and obediently limped alongside me. Only when we were in the trailer did I finally become aware of the horrible stench coming from her sloughing hoof.
I dialed my own veterinarian before I had the truck in gear. His clinic was a mere 30 minutes from where I was, but I wished at that moment for a snap of the fingers that would have us there immediately. Traveling to the clinic, I winced with every stop and start, every minute bump in the road, unsure of how Claims My Name would tolerate the trip. I was thankful our plans included another transporter to a separate, local foster home for the second mare, leaving me able to direct all of my attention towards the damaged mare in my trailer.
The vet tech came out to meet us before I was out of my vehicle. Claims My Name had been eating the fresh hay I had for her in the trailer, so I had decided to let her stay and eat as long as possible. The tech took one look at the mare’s hind leg and said she would be back with the vet. It was a short walk from the trailer to the grassy area where Dr. Visser asked me to bring Claims My Name. He knelt down to examine her leg, and when he stood and looked at me, his eyes were filled with tears and he said nothing for a moment or two.
The last hour had gone so slowly. The time to get Claims My Name from farm to clinic where she would be released from her suffering seemed to take forever. But now there was not enough time, not enough time to tell her how beautiful she was, not enough time to tell her she deserved so much better, not enough time to whisper to her that I would never forget her. Now everything around me felt as though it was in fast-forward, yet she seemed to slump to the ground in slow motion. As the vet gave the final injection that would stop her heart, I held her head and promised her she would always be remembered.
And every day, she is.
Within the month, the farm owner conceded to sell three more Thoroughbreds to the rescue and to donate the two foals that had been left behind when we took their mothers. The “skinny gray gelding” was one of the three purchased, and after six months of great care at a foster home, “Juan’s Bouncer” became the stunning beauty we’re certain he once was. He has since been adopted into a permanent home. “Runaway Easter,” a timid chestnut filly, was terrified of trailers. Yet the day we picked her up, her hunger won over her fear and with her whole body trembling, she walked on with her head buried in the hay I held in my arms. This little 3-year-old suffered from neurological problems and needed to be euthanized.
Two other Thoroughbreds at this farm, “Gotta Beau” and “Leader of the Pact,” were not as lucky as their former herd mates. The farm owner would not consider selling the younger Gotta Beau, but she would part with Leader of the Pact for $1000. That amount made it impossible for the already financially strapped rescue to obtain him. The emaciated and lame chestnut gelded son of Charismatic, 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, was bred by a well-known and respected farm in Kentucky. Numerous calls to the lucrative Thoroughbred breeding and racing operation for help for Leader of the Pact went ignored, even after being promised a call back.
Approximately one year later, the farm owner called requesting to donate Leader of the Pact. He immediately came into the program but by this time, all hope for a new life was gone. The gelding had endured White Lines Disease that had gone untreated for many months, and according to the examining vet, he had over 20 pockets of abscesses in his front feet. Help for Leader of the Pact came too late, and the suffering gelding was humanely euthanized.
Gotta Beau’s whereabouts are unknown.
With Saratoga garnering all the attention this time of year, I thought it appropriate to update readers on the goings-on elsewhere. This is the current list of Thoroughbred deaths at Finger Lakes Racetrack near Rochester (“Come discover the electricity and excitement of live thoroughbred racing in Western New York!”):
3/25/13…Norlou (“fistulous whithers-euthanized”)
4/2/13…Johar Beauty (“large colon torsion with displacement-euthanized”)
4/25/13…Pax (“suffered dislocation fx LF fetlock-euthanized”)
5/3/13…This Is Somuch Fun (“unresponsive LF lameness-possible infection with severe pain and discomfort-euthanized”)
5/14/13…Dry Humor (“pulled up – vanned off – fx RF Sesamoid – euthanized”)
5/25/13…Rifle (“suspected fx R carpal bone-euthanized”)
5/27/13…Kodiak Kid (“severe colic-unresponsive to medical treatment-euthanized”)
5/27/13…Moyer’s Pond (“unseated rider-horse fell exiting track-fx L shoulder-euthanized”)
6/20/13…City Glee (“suffered an apparent cardio vascular event after being washed off”)
6/20/13…Love Our Grandkids (“fell-vanned off-RF swelling-developed severe cellulitis RF lower leg-signs of laminitis LF leg-euthanized 6 days later”)
6/26/13…Bully Around (“pulled up while breezing – dropped & died on track”)
6/27/13…Midnight Monarch (“stumbled unseating rider- fx RF Ankle-euthanized”)
6/29/13…Maple Leaf Racer (“vet called – found dead in stall”)
7/13/13…Asweetkitty (“RF bilateral sesamoid fx-euthanized”)
7/16/13…Golden Jewel (“rupture LF suspensory & sesamoid fx-euthanized”)
7/22/13…Werblin Phone (euthanized)
8/1/13…Alpha Galpha Gold (“infection RF leg unresponsive to treatment – euthanized”)
That’s 17 dead horses at Finger Lakes and the meet still has several months to go. When Aqueduct’s death rate doubled in ’11-’12, NYRA was forced (by the Governor’s office) to investigate. But who is to be tasked with exposing the carnage at the state’s eight non-NYRA tracks? The likely answer, sadly, is no one, for deaths like these are typically considered an unfortunate cost of doing business, and tracks like Finger Lakes usually fly under the radar. But This Is Somuch Fun and Love Our Grandkids (aren’t the names so witty?) were no different, except for running speed perhaps, than Saratoga’s Black Rhino and Charmed Hour. They lived, suffered, and died so men could gamble and all they received in return is a single line in a state database.