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Breeders’ Cup 2019 Plagued by Another Equine Death


By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

Photo cutlines: Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr celebrates victory while riding Vino Rosso in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at the Santa Anita Racetrack. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images
Ortiz kisses Vino Rosso. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Another horse fatality haunted the 2019 Breeders’ Cup races, run November 1-2, 2019 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, last race of the two-day meet, Mongolian Groom became the 37th horse to die at this track since December 2018. This injury happened despite the fact that the Breeders’ Cup had in place a team of 30 veterinarians to perform soundness exams on the horses prior to racing.

The Breeders’ Cup World Championships is the culmination of the Thoroughbred racing season and the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic is the defining event. It is run at 1¼ miles and is open to 3-year-olds and older, limited to 14 starters.

Winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic was Vino Rosso, owned by Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable, ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr. and trained by Todd Pletcher. Bob Baffertsaddled favorite McKinzie, under jockey Joel Rosario. His horse went to the lead in the final turn, but was overpowered by Vino Rosso, who won by 4¼ lengths, drawing away from 5-2 favorite McKinzie down the stretch. The only mare in this race, Elate, finished fourth. Read a recap of the race here:

Results of the 2019 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic:
(1st) Vino Rosso, jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., trainer Todd Pletcher
(2nd) McKinzie, jockey Joel Rosario, trainer Bob Baffert
(3rd) Higher Power, jockey Flavien Prat, trainer John W. Sadler
(4th) Elate, jockey Jose Ortiz, trainer William I. Mott
(5th) Math Wizard, jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr., trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr
(6th) Seeking the Soul, jockey B. Hernandez, Jr., trainer Dallas Stewart
(7th) Code of Honor, jockey John Velazquez, trainer Claude R. McGaughey III
(8th) Yoshida, jockey Mike Smith, trainer William I. Mott
(9th) War of Will, jockey Tyler Gaffalione, trainer Mark Casse
(10th) Owendale, jockey Javier Castellano, trainer Brad Cox
(did not finish) Mongolian Groom, jockey A. Cedillo, trainer Enebish Ganbat

Mongolian Groom had been running third when War of Will, on the rail, began to pass him in the stretch. Jockey Abel Cedillo pulled up the 4-year-old gelding near the eighth pole, as War of Will jockey Tyler Gaffalione looked back to see Mongolian Groom break down. The horse could be seen trying to gallop on three legs, holding up his left hind leg, and Cedillo quickly jumped off, as handlers rushed to assist and untack the horse. A green tarp was erected around him to prevent the audience from seeing the injured horse. He was loaded onto an equine ambulance and taken to a hospital on the backstretch.

A team of four veterinarians, led by board certified veterinary surgeon Dr. Ryan Carpenter, scrutinized the serious fracture to his left hind leg. According to the Paulick Report, the horse “suffered multiple fractures of the lower part of his left hind cannon and upper pastern.” Given the extent of the injury, Dr. Carpenter, in consultation with Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, veterinary surgeon and professor emeritus at Colorado State University; Dr. Rick Arthur, Equine Medical Director of the California Horse Racing Board; and attending veterinarian Dr. Vince Baker, recommended humane euthanasia of Mongolian Groom, according to a statement from the Breeders’ Cup. Breeders’ Cup officials said they have hired Dr. Larry Bramlage to conduct an independent evaluation with the results to be made public when completed.

Jog videos of Mongolian Groom from October 31 and October 26, 2019 are posted on the Paulick Report website.

Mongolian Groom was coming off a victory in the Awesome Again Stakes over McKinzie (2nd in Breeders’ Cup Classic), Higher Power (3rd in Breeders’ Cup Classic), and Seeking the Soul (6th in Breeders’ Cup Classic) at Santa Anita in September. He was bred by Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky and trained by Ganbat Enebish.

The historic Santa Anita racetrack was originally opened in 1934. Recently, Santa Anita Park has been beleaguered with equine deaths since December 2018. In March 2019, after 20 horses had died in the span of just three months, Santa Anita closed for evaluation. When it reopened three weeks later March 29, changes were implemented. Trainers had to apply two days in advance before working out a horse; jockeys had to replace whips with softer “cushion crops;” and restrictions on steroids, anti-inflammation drugs, and race-day medications were instituted. The Breeders’ Cup also beefed up its own pre-race exams and observations of runners.

But just a week before the Breeders’ Cup, two more horses were euthanized at that track, bringing the total to 36 deceased horses during the calendar year.  On Friday October 24, 2019 GQ Covergirl, a six-year-old mare, was euthanized after sustaining injury to both of her front legs. The injury occurred on the training track and the trainer is Doug O’Neill.

On Sunday October 27, 2019 Bye Bye Beautiful was euthanized after the third race. After being pulled up after the ½ mile pole, the filly was evaluated by Santa Anita Park veterinarian Dr. Dana Stead and transported in an equine ambulance.  Dr. Stead observed that the filly had suffered a right forelimb lateral condylar fracture with medial sesamoid involvement and, because of the severity of the injury, made the decision to humanely euthanize the horse.

Critics had called for the Breeders’ Cup to be moved from Santa Anita, but outgoing Breeders’ Cup CEO Craig Fravel said that the race chose not to change venues. Favel is moving on to oversee racing operations for Santa Anita Park’s owner, the Stronach Group.

In June 2019, Joe Drape of the The New York Times cited several reasons why horses were dying so frequently at Santa Anita. One was the use of pre-race drugs; Drape writes that the track tolerated trainers who had been cited for using performance-affecting drugs. “A review of the medication violations over the past 10 years for the trainers of the 30 horses that died at Santa Anita showed that many had been cited with unusual frequency,” Drape wrote. Another was the track’s owners,’ Canada-based Stronach Group, policy to maximize profits by increasing the number of races and putting pressure on trainers to race horses that may have not had enough rest or been in proper condition. Another was track safety. Track superintendent Dennis Moore had worked at Santa Anita until December (2018), when he retired. In his tenure, he had been overly cautious, closing a track in anticipation of weather that might damage the uniformity of its surface. Drape wrote, “Santa Anita ran 111 races on its main track when the surface was listed as either muddy, sloppy or off, compared with only 18 during the same period the previous winter, according to industry records.”

Both the CHRB (California Horse Racing Board) and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office have undertaken investigations into fatalities at Santa Anita Park. The CHRB's findings are set to be published in December.

According to The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database, 6,134 fatal racing injuries occurred between 2009 and 2018. (from the Louisville Courier Journal).

On March 22, 2019, “The Jockey Club Released Data from the Equine Injury Database (EID) for 2018.” The EID statistics include fatal injuries of Thoroughbreds that occurred during an official race as reported by veterinary officials and includes Thoroughbreds that succumbed to a race-related injury within 72 hours after race day. The statistics exclude steeplechase races.

According to Prof. Tim Parkin, veterinarian and epidemiologist from the University of Glasgow and consultant to the EID said: “Analysis of the EID has demonstrated that there are a multitude of factors that contribute to the risk of fatal injuries in Thoroughbred racehorses. Moving forward, we should focus on the medications present in horses during racing and training, transparency of veterinary records for all starters, and the collection of injury data from morning training hours.”

According to this article, “The 2018 study showed that 2-year-olds were associated with a statistically significant lower rate (1.28 per 1,000 starts) compared to older horses (1.72 per 1,000 starts).

“The rates associated with each racing surface were as follows:
  • On turf surfaces, the rate was 1.20 per 1,000 starts in 2018, compared to 1.36 in 2017.
  • On dirt surfaces, the rate was 1.86 per 1,000 starts in 2018, compared to 1.74 in 2017.
  • On synthetic surfaces, the rate was 1.23 per 1,000 starts in 2018, compared to 1.10 in 2017.
“Since March 2012, racetracks have been able to voluntarily publish their statistics from the EID in the Safety Initiatives section of The Jockey Club website. There are 25 tracks that self-reported during 2018. Since the EID’s inception, 109 racetracks have given data.”

The website Horseracing Wrongs lists horses who have died training or racing on U.S. racetracks in 2019.  Here’s a sampling: in Kentucky at Churchill Downs there were three; at Keeneland there were 11. At Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the website lists 11 horse deaths for its 2019 four-month racing season, from January to April.

Horse protection groups are calling for passage of the Horse Racing Integrity Act H.R. 1754/S.1820.

In March 2019, the Jockey Club published its Vision 2025, in which it calls for comprehensive reform in horse racing. The document states: “It would be a mistake to view the Santa Anita fatalities as an isolated situation — spikes in the deaths of horses have occurred at other tracks and they will continue to occur without significant reforms to the horse racing industry. The issue isn’t about a single track — horse fatalities are a nationwide problem, one that has shocked the fans, the industry, the regulators, and the general public.

“The Jockey Club supports the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019, or H.R. 1754. The bill would create a private, independent horse racing anti-doping authority (HADA) responsible for developing and administering a nationwide anti-doping and medication control program for horse racing. The authority would be under the oversight of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the organization entrusted by the United States for drug testing of its Olympic athletes. Horse racing would operate under a single set of anti-doping and medication rules across the country.”

The document addresses the problems with the current regulatory systems in place, such as inconsistencies in regulations across racing jurisdictions; lack of research to ensure that testing laboratories are operating at the same level; insufficient research on drug-related matters; and no national investigative organization to “police” the industry and catch cheaters.

One of the most controversial drugs administered to racehorses across the board is Lasix (furosemide). The report states: Scientific evidence indicates that a very small proportion of the [racehorse] population is actually adversely affected by EIPH (exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage), somewhat less than 10%, whereas approximately 95% of all racehorses are treated with Lasix.”

The Vision 2025 report calls for some key reforms: (1) Independent Central Rule Making Authority. (2) Transparency and Drug Testing: “All medical treatments and procedures must be disclosed for inclusion in a central database, and all horses may be subject to random drug testing at any time prior to or after a race for permitted and prohibited substances.” (3&4) Equine Injury Database and Injury Reporting: Requiring all racetracks to report all incidents of fatality and injury on any horse during a race… and in race training. (5) Approved medications. (6) All horses entered to race subjected Pre-race Veterinary Examination. (7) Veterinarian oversight. (8) Fitness and ready to train conditions for all horses prior to entering the racing surface. (9) Equipment practices reform, e.g., riding crops. (10) Rider safety protocols. (11) Racing surface analysis. (12) Thoroughbred after care.

The Vision 2025 report seems to be a logical path to reducing Thoroughbred racehorse injuries and deaths. Passage of the Horse Racing Integrity Act [H.R. 1754/S.1820] would certain bolster the implementation of Thoroughbred racing reforms.
Almasy, Steve. 2019.“The Death of Another Horse at Santa Anita Park Mars Breeders’ Cup Classic.” CNN Sports. Nov. 3.
Drape, Joe and Corina Knoll. 2019. “Why So Many Horses Have Died at Santa Anita.” The New York Times. June 26.
ESPN News Services. 2019. “Breeders’ Cup ends with death of 37th horse at Santa Anita.” Nov. 2.
Peter, Josh. 2019. “Mongolian Groom Euthanized After Breeders’ Cup Classic Injury; 37th horse to die at Santa Anita since December.” USA Today. Nov. 2.
Rybaltowski, Matt. 2019. “Mongolian Groom’s Fatal Injury Mars Heavily Scrutinized Breeders’ Cup. Forbes. Nov. 2.
Sullivan, Tim. 2019. “Mongolian Groom’s death in Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita will haunt horse racing.” Louisville Courier Journal. Nov. 2.
Tierney, Mike and Joe Drape. 2019. “Another Horse’s Death Overshadows Vino Ross’s Win at Breeders’ Cup Classic.” The New York Times. Nov. 2.
Voss, Natalie. 2019. “Breeders’ Cup Mum On Mongolian Groom’s Exam History.” Paulick Report. Nov. 5.
CHRB Press Release. 2019. Analysis of Fatalities Due in December. Oct. 24.
The Jockey Club Press Release. 2019. “Data from the Equine Injury Database for 2018.” March 22.
The Jockey Club. Vision 2025.  
Zialcita, Paolo. 2019. “Two More Horses Die at Santa Anita Park As It Prepares To Horse Breeders’ Cup. NPR. October 28.
October 25, 2019. Incident Information.
October 27, 2019. Statement from the Stronach Group.
LA Times Editorial. 2019. “Horses are still dying at Santa Anita and something has to give.” Los Angeles Times. Nov. 2.
O’Neill has a record of administering improper drugs to his horses.

“Over 14 years and in four different states, O’Neill received more than a dozen violations for giving his horses improper drugs. O’Neill’s horses also have had a tendency to break down. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the horses he trains break down or show signs of injury at more than twice the rate of the national average,” wrote Joe Drape and Walter Bogdanich in the NY Times, May 2010. In 2014 he was suspended for 45 days and fined $10,000 by the New York State Gaming Commission after one of his horses tested positive for a banned substance at Belmont Park. His suspension began on November 3, just two days after the Breeders’ Cup was run at Santa Anita.

Drape, Joe and Walt Bogdanich. 2012. “A Derby Win, but a Troubled Record for a Trainer.” NY Times. May 10.

Associated Press. “Horse Trainer Doug O’Neill Suspended by New York.” 2014. USA Today. October 2.

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