Following is NYRA’s official replay of Sunday’s 9th race at Saratoga, the one that left a young filly named Charmed Hour dead. The race, of course, was noteworthy because of the bumping going on at the end and ultimately a disqualification. As you watch, please bear in mind two salient points: One, in an 8 1/2-minute video, Charmed Hour was mentioned only once, as bringing up the rear. Nothing on her breakdown. Two, thanks to the controversy, we have been blessed with several slow-motion replays showing, among other things, the incessant whipping administered to the five two-year-olds who did finish. Racing calls them budding stars (this was a Grade II); nature calls them children.
By any measure, Thoroughbred trainer Don Roberson has been successful in his chosen profession: 1,190 wins, almost $11 million in career purses, and 27 in-the-money finishes this year alone. But it’s equally safe to call him a cheat, a cheat who puts the animals in his charge at grave risk. Roberson has just begun serving a two-year suspension in Delaware for a July 13th stable search that yielded “injectable medications, syringes, and needles.” This, though, should not surprise: According to the website Thoroughbred Rulings, Roberson has been fined multiple times in multiple states for various administrative infractions. And for drugs…
9/30/08, West Virginia, phenylbutazone (or bute) overage, Seaboard (who finished 1st)
5/29/10, Iowa, phenylbutazone overage, Black Gulch (who finished 1st)
2/19/11, Louisiana, methocarbamol present, Smokey Belle (who finished 2nd)
6/17/11, Iowa, methocarbamol present, Christina’s Dream (who finished 2nd)
6/28/11, Iowa, failure to declare correct medication, Pick a Tizzy
8/13/11, Iowa, methocarbamol present, Let’s Get Crackin (who finished 2nd), suspension
6/22/12, California, phenylbutazone overage, Karen’s Good Boy (who finished 1st)
Because horseracing leaves each state to do its own thing, Roberson’s abuses of the pain-killing, injury-masking bute were reported and penalized as “first offenses” – $200 in West Virginia and $250 in Iowa, no suspensions. And in California, since trainer Roberson had “no similar violations during the last 365 days [and promised not to do it again], an official warning was given.” Not even a fine. This is just one of the ways trainers mock the “system.” While good that one state has finally banned him, Mr. Roberson remains free to practice everywhere else. This is horseracing.
Two-year-old Charmed Hour, running only her 2nd race, shattered her right front cannon bone during Sunday’s Grade 2 Adirondack (for fillies) in Saratoga. She was euthanized on the track. With the added intrigue of a winner disqualification, Charmed Hour’s fall was barely mentioned by media outlets: The Saratogian, 1 paragraph in 12; the Paulick Report, 1 sentence in 21; the Times Union, 2 sentences in 14; and The Daily Gazette, which, in addition to a similar disparity, reported that “the fatality was the first of the meet, in either racing or training.” Not true, and something the newspaper should have known. 2013 death count at sunny Saratoga: 2.
In a 2002 The Michigan Thoroughbred (published by the Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association) article, “These Gallant Geldings,” the author touts the value of claimers, calling them “the backbone of the daily racing program.” Injuries, the magazine says, are hardly a reason to retire these crucial card fillers: “Perhaps they have suffered an injury that has compromised their chances of running at full potential. For whatever reason they are training along side some of the best and putting on a substantial part of the racing program at most tracks. They are the bread and butter horses of daily racing. Most of these claimers are geldings, as they have no residual breeding potential and therefore have an extended [italics added] racing career.”
The article went on to happily report that nine-year-old Shamanuu edged out eight-year-old Brash Tony for 2001 Claimer of the Year at Great Lakes Downs in Michigan: “Both of these gallant geldings have shown they love to run! They have shown great heart, are competitive and determined. They are great examples of all the characteristics we value in a racehorse. The fact that they raced at a lower level than stakes horses should not diminish their achievements, as they are the backbone of the racing industry.” The vote, as it turns out, was a shameful deception, for one of the gallants in the running was already dead. Yes, dead, before the ballots were even cast.
We first encountered Brash Tony in the late fall of 2001. Our weekly visits to Great Lakes Downs, walking the shedrows looking for possible rescues, were coming to an end along with that year’s race meet. The Thoroughbreds at this small track would soon be moving on to the next circuit stop, and if no onsite rescue existed there, the injured or physically compromised would be prime targets for slaughter. That morning, Brash Tony, visibly limping, was tethered to an automatic walking machine, head bobbing with each painful step. Round and round he went, trying mightily to keep pace. We knew right then that this poor horse needed saving. Our request was summarily denied. The trainer insisted he had no injuries, describing the arthritic horse as “just a lazy son of a bitch that takes a long time to warm up.” His prescription for indolence: “I make him loosen up and go on the walking machine for several hours each day.” Several hours.
With the trainer unmoved, we approached Brash Tony’s diamond and gold-clad owner, who was taking in morning practice. Donation, of course, was out of the question, but he “generously” offered Brash Tony for $600, an inflated price for a broken, dispirited animal probably destined for euthanasia. We, of course, paid his asking price and immediately took him to see an equine orthopedic surgeon at Michigan State University. The good doctor, knowing how excruciating each step had become, brought the radiology equipment to the patient. The x-rays confirmed our fears: Brash Tony was beyond help, even his standing state a painful one. And so, on a crisp November day in 2001, Brash Tony was peacefully laid to rest. His “extended racing career,” his years of servitude mercifully at an end. No more masters, no more seedy tracks, no more whips, no more painkillers, no more walking machines, no more suffering. Gentle release.
Michigan requires pre-race exams to ensure that only the sound run, but the state vets at Great Lakes failed their duty. Brash Tony was forced to the gate, arthritic legs (at eight, he should have been in his prime) and all. In the end, he was killed by simple human greed. Shamanuu, career earner of almost $200,000, started his last race the following April at Illinois’ Sportsman Park. Pulling up early on, the other “gallant gelding” was “vanned off,” never to be heard from again. Coincidentally, this was the same month his “victory” was announced in The Michigan Thoroughbred. Life for “bread and butter” claimers is even worse today as racino-bloated purses entice horsemen to run their damaged assets in low-risk, high-reward races. If a bone snaps, no great loss, for other cheap, anonymous horses await. Brash Tony and Shamanuu toiled a world away from Triple Crown pageantry, a world where mainstream media and casual fans rarely stray. Sad, indeed.