Horseracing Wrongs is honored to introduce a new guest contributor, Mary Johnson. Mary has been involved with Thoroughbreds for 50 years, including four as a volunteer at CANTER. Currently, she concentrates her efforts on rescuing the industry’s refuse.

Shedrow Secrets: Marsella Delight

by Mary Johnson

It is early December, and I am on the phone with a track official. He tells me there are two horses who will be euthanized within the next few days. The mare, 6-year-old Marsella Delight, has something serious going on with one of her ankles, while the other, a gelding named Grand Piano Man, is simply too slow. I ask the official if my friends (Mandy and Kelly) and I could take a closer look, for perhaps Marsella’s injury isn’t life-threatening, and with enough rest, Grand Piano Man might make a good pleasure horse. He agrees, and we make plans to see the horses on December 7th. But he warns that they need to be moved “immediately.”

Upon arrival at the track, we quickly discover that the situation is bad. The uncaring and, frankly, abusive groom, kicks another horse whom we believe is colicing in his stall (Stall 21 – I’ll never forget it). The horse is down and won’t get up. I am shocked by what I witness, but I shouldn’t have been because, after all, this is the horseracing industry. We turn our attention to Marsella. She has very little bedding and no hay. When led out, she can barely walk. I would describe it as more of a “hobble.” I run my hands down her legs and feel her huge left front ankle, and there is heat in her fetlock. Her right front almost looks deformed, and it appears her suspensory is dropping. Marsella limps painfully back to her stall. We then look at the gelding who, although frightened, thin, and unkept, was in decent shape. He has a bright future if we can just get him to safety. Poor Marsella, however, is a different story.

Marsella broke down in her last race back in September and was vanned off the track. It was the second time within nine months that she had needed an ambulance. Since September, she languished in a stall, crippled; it is painful to watch her walk. She is so badly damaged from being pushed too fast, too far, and for too long, that she will likely need to be euthanized. Mandy, Kelly, and I are heartbroken, but we pull ourselves together and agree to decide on both horses by the next day.

After talking privately, we decide to take both. They will enter Mandy’s and Kelly’s rescue, located in proximity to the track. I agree to provide financial support, including x-rays for Marsella. Transport is arranged, and the horses enter the rescue on December 12th. We just couldn’t leave Marsella behind. Our gift to her is a couple weeks of love, pain medication, a comfy stall, and people who tell her how beautiful and worthy she truly is. Although life has not been easy for Marsella, and people have been cruel, her last days on this earth will be spent in comfort and security surrounded by people who love her – not for the money she can win, but just because of who she is.

Special treats and soft words follow for this sweet horse, whose reaction to a casually raised hand reaching to pet her is to pull back in fear. On the 23rd, I take a video of Marsella being walked so as to document her injuries. The last few days of her life she is turned out in a small indoor arena. Marsella “delights” in touching noses with Missy, a mare approaching thirty, and just being in her little herd. Yes, she is broken beyond repair, but she is loved unconditionally.

The vet is scheduled for the afternoon of the 26th. During my visit with Marsella, I pick up her left front and it hits me for the first time – there is absolutely NO flexion in her left front ankle. My heart races as I think of all the joint injections she endured during her racing career. Twelve starts in nine months and two times vanned off the track. Her two wins during those months sealed her fate. Wins meant that her owner/trainer needed to keep her going. How could she run in this condition? The answer is easy – injections and drugs. If he would have stopped running her, what would her future have been? We will never know. I hold Marsella as she is x-rayed by an equine vet. From the report:

“I was asked to evaluate a 6 year old chestnut Thoroughbred mare named Marsella Delight today December 26, 2013. The mare had a history of being ‘vanned off the track after a breakdown during a race in September. Upon examination today, the mare was significantly lame bilaterally up front at the walk. Grade 4/5 lameness on each forelimb.

Left front: significant swelling of the fetlock with heat. Severely decreased range of motion of fetlock. High heel on that foot…possibly indicating chronicity (although can’t be sure since I did not examine her prior to her injury). Radiographs show significant periosteal reaction on the distal cannon bone as well as the proximal P1 and around sesamoid bones. No evidence fractures or chips at this time. Decreased range of motion likely due to chronicity of injury causing joint capsule scarring/ contracture.

Right front: dropped fetlock. Unwilling/unable to pick up foot for observation. Long, underrun heel. Probable suspensory breakdown +/- DDF breakdown. Humane euthanasia was elected for this mare.”

Twice the vet asks how Marsella could be run on those damaged legs, and both times I respond, “Because it’s the racing industry.” I ask the vet if the injuries are recent, and her response was a resounding “NO.” Marsella Delight didn’t become this damaged overnight. After reviewing the x-rays, another equine vet added, “The whole articular surface of Marsella Delight’s cannon bone is gone and has demineralized over time and the ankle has fused. Significant remodeling has occurred.”

There is no hope for Marsella. We are heartbroken, but if life isn’t free of suffering, we feel obligated to give these horses the gift of a peaceful euthanasia. We could do no less for Marsella, no matter how much we wanted her to stay with us. Her sweet and loving nature caused all to fall in love with her. This precious soul was victimized and discarded by an uncaring owner (and industry) driven by money and greed. Although I met her at the end of her short life, I still felt honored. Her life was important, and I promised that her story would be told.

I held her lead rope in my hand as she was humanely euthanized late that afternoon. As she fell to the ground, I began sobbing, and I am still emotional as I write this tribute. Go gallop in those green pastures, Marsella. We are blessed that you came to visit us, even if only for two weeks. You were only six, just a baby. But I promise you will NEVER be forgotten, and I will hold the racing industry accountable.

The following, unless otherwise noted, were “vanned off” American tracks last week.

Kuro, Turf, race 2 (“broke down”)
Sevenytwo, Turfway, race 2

Cindykat, Fair Grounds, race 10 (“went wrong early”)

Holy Simone, Delta, race 9
Aunt Meanie, Fair Grounds, race 9 (“broke down”)
Lexis Hero, Parx, race 5 (not vanned but bled, DNF)
Leavin Here, Parx, race 7 (“pulled up in distress”)
Ezinmotion, Portland, race 7 (“went wrong”)
Ben’s Starry Night, Portland, race 10
Trando’s Tremor, Santa Anita, race 4
Time for Alex, Turfway, race 7

Uncle Smokey, Aqueduct, race 7 (confirmed dead)
Beyond Midnight, Laurel, race 7
Shand, Santa Anita, race 8 (“broke down”)
Buckel Bunny, Sunland, race 3 (“returned sore”)

Music and Me, Santa Anita, race 4
Behind the Bossman, Turf, race 2

Sassy Cherokee, Charles Town, race 1 (“broke down”)
Madelyns Itsybitsy, Fair Grounds, race 2 (“in distress after pulling up”)
Classic Ford, Fair Grounds, race 10 (“broke down”)
Shimmering Star, Golden Gate, race 1
Side Street, Gulfstream, race 3 (confirmed dead)
Shinelajollawarrior, Hialeah, race 5 (not vanned but bled)
Chicks Luv Roses, Sunland, race 2

Yankee Romance, Los Alamitos, race 4
Chatterboxsecret, Los Alamitos, race 5
Hye I’m Jack, Santa Anita, race 7
Baran’s Prospect, Tampa Bay, race 3

Yesterday afternoon at Gulfstream, 2-year-old Side Street broke down running the Grade 3 “Old Hat” Stakes and was subsequently killed. The filly was ridden by Jesus Castanon, trained by Elizabeth Gray, and owned by Andrew Farm.

Two other horses also broke down Saturday: 4-year-old Sassy Cherokee in the 1st race at Charles Town and 3-year-old Classic Ford in the 10th race at Fair Grounds.

A head-on collision claimed the lives of two racehorses at Belmont yesterday morning, a story receiving mainstream coverage because one, 9-year-old Caixa Eletronica (below), was a star. Apparently, 4-year-old Six Drivers, the claimer afterthought part of this tale, became unnerved on the training track, threw his rider, and darted into Caixa Eletronica. Both, according to the NYRA vet, died instantly (neck, skull fractures).

photo credit: AP
photo credit: AP

Now to the nub. Caixa Eletronica’s owner, Mike Repole: “I’m devastated. …It’s a terrible day for racing. For any horse, it’s horrible. When you hear it’s Caixa Eletronica, it’s magnified.” Why devastated and magnified? The aptly named Caixa Eletronica – Portuguese for “cash machine” – had earned $1.6 million for Repole. Chris Englehart, Six Drivers’ brand new trainer (he was claimed on December 27th), fully commiserates: “It made it 10 times worse when I found out who the other horse was.” Curiously, Englehart had nothing to say about his own horse.

As a footnote, Newsday says that Evan Gewirtz, Six Drivers’ owner, hopes “the accident wouldn’t provoke protests from animal-rights groups.” Well, Mr. Gewirtz, we do protest, vehemently. And while you and your cohorts shamefully attempt to wipe your hands of this, we know the truth: Horseracing, not mischance, killed these two horses. Sleep on that.