‘A Gun To Our Heads’: California Trainers Struggle With What Lies Ahead

by | 11.03.2019 | 9:31pm
Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.

The Sunday morning after the Breeders' Cup dawned over horses working at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., just as they had on Saturday, as they had a year ago, and probably as they had 40 years ago. Exercise riders soothed anxious mounts, grooms gave baths to steaming horses, and horse lovers sipped coffee at Clocker's Corner. But the mood today was different. It may never be the same again.

Mongolian Groom, the Classic hopeful who pulled up in the stretch of the race with multiple fractures in a hind leg, was carrying more than just jockey Abel Cedillo on his back. He shouldered the hopes of American horse racing for a Breeders' Cup free of injury on a track that was in the crosshairs after a spate of fatal injuries earlier this year. Unfortunately, despite safe racing Friday and throughout the Classic undercard Saturday, those hopes didn't make it to the finish line. Late Saturday evening, veterinarians determined Mongolian Groom's injuries were too severe for a good prognosis with surgery, and the horse was euthanized.

On Sunday, the Breeders' Cup crowd was gone. The apron was quieter, but not only because it was emptier. It was exactly what you'd expect after someone had died. A much-criticized statement issued by the Breeders' Cup after Mongolian Groom's death acknowledged, “The death of Mongolian Groom is a loss to the entire horse racing community.” It's not unusual for those on the backstretch to ache for their compatriots, knowing or imagining the sadness of carrying the empty halter back to the tack room. But in this case, they're mourning for themselves, too.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) issued a warning to Santa Anita earlier in the week that if there is another fatality, its days were numbered. For people in Southern California whose lives revolve around their horses, though, the animal rights groups and California Gov. Gavin Newsom had already created that sense of Damocles, and now the sword had fallen.

“It's very disappointing,” said Richard Mandella. “I don't know what to say. I've got 40 horses here and in Del Mar, and I couldn't ask for it to be a better track for my horses. It's kind of weak to say we've got a black cloud over us, but it sure seems to be. It scares you, what's going on. It scares you how the news is … it's almost like they've got an agenda, and it's not good.”

Leandro Mora, longtime assistant to Doug O'Neill, echoed Mandella's fears.

“I feel like we have someone with a gun to our heads,” said Mora. “It's not our fault, the horsemen's fault. Accidents are going to happen, but a lot of people are so negative toward what's going on in the sport that we're on thin ice.”

Mora and O'Neill have been heavily involved in organizing and publicizing counter protests to combat the animal rights groups who make appearances outside one of the track's gates and were vocal and visible at the Breeders' Cup. Their concern is the impact on their employees if racing were to disappear.

“I'm hoping people wake up, including the legislators, and see how beautiful the sport is,” Mora said. “It was an accident. We were doing as much as we could – 30 veterinarians, and this still happens. That doesn't mean we have to make this beautiful sport disappear.

“I'm 60 years old. People like me are going to die and no one else is going to continue, so we want to keep things going. We have a lot of families depending on this. And of course the states and the cities, they get fat with our taxes so they have to think about it before they do something. That's just my point of view.”

Karen Headley does not think the end is nigh, but for her, the increased scrutiny that will come with this breakdown does mean that drug policy is all the more important.

“You're either the problem or you're being quiet about the problem,” said Headley. “We need to get our gamblers back, we need to educate our owners, and we need to get back on track. It's the rampant drug use, the shockwaving.

“I just keep taking good care of my horses. That's all I can do. Horses are my life. No one's ever committed suicide with a good 2-year-old in their stable; whoever said that, it was true, and I've got some nice ones.”

Carla Gaines, whose Breeders' Cup Mile hopeful Bolo had to scratch due to abnormal bloodwork, was somber.

“It's so sad. It's terrible,” she said. “They had what, 300 something yards to go in the last race in two fantastic days of racing?”

For Gaines, having a breakdown in the face of so many added layers of veterinary scrutiny only goes to show the fragility of the Thoroughbred. The last thing anyone wants to hear is that there is no cure for this problem, but of course no horseman believes it will ever be possible to get the fatality rates down to zero.

So how do you continue as a California trainer in this climate?

“You just keep going forward,” Gaines said. “You just try to do the best job that you can, and look out for the health and welfare of the horse.”

Natalie Voss is Eclipse Award-winning features editor of the Paulick Report

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