Horse racing, the highest highs and the lowest lows
I have always said the Sport of Kings is not for the faint of heart. It isn’t.Jonathan Stettin, Past the Wire
A little over an hour after winning the Sir Barton Stakes on The Preakness undercard with Arabian Lion, trainer Bob Baffert was hit with the type of blow anyone in racing can be hit with at any time. Bob Baffert returned to The Triple Crown trail to run National Treasure in The Preakness. He brought Faiza, Arabian Lion, and Havanameltdown to run in other stakes on the cards over Pimlico’s big Preakness weekend. If you know him and have followed his career you can only imagine how he must have felt.
Arabian Lion dominated the Sir Barton on the front end. Regardless of what happened in the other races, it was a successful if not triumphant return to The Triple Crown by the man who has owned it and sat aside for the past two years. The Preakness would be great, a record for Bob Baffert but I believe he was just happy to be back where he loves to be and doing what he has devoted his career and professional life to doing. Winning races. The happiness would not last.
Havanameltdown seemed to come out of the gate slow from the rail. Ryvit, in the 2 post, appeared to come in under Tyler Gaffalione who was subbing for Keith Asmussen who could not ride for his father, Steve Asmussen. Keith suffered an injury a few days prior to the Chick Lang. It was hard to tell from the head on if Ryvit and Havanameltdown made contact but it looked possible. Unfortunately stewards rarely look at gate incidents especially if they don’t involve possible malfunctions or starter errors. I believe they should.
To his credit Luis Saez recovered almost immediately and put Havanameltdown in perfect position stalking Ryvit and he looked like despite the gate incident might well win anyway. Then it happened. The worst thing, the last thing, racing or Bob Baffert needed. Havanameltdown suffered a catastrophic breakdown in what appeared to be his left front ankle. Luis Saez was thrown to the ground. Havanameltdown was in obvious distress and humanely euthanized on the racetrack as fast as possible. Saez was removed on a backboard and transported to a local hospital. Many of us know Luis Saez lost his younger brother Juan to a racing accident. He still rides.
The next race, The Grade 3 Galorette went off on schedule. The one modification was Luis Saez did not ride his scheduled mount. We all watched. We all still felt bad. Many still felt for Havanameltdown. None of us felt worse than Bob Baffert. None.
Bob Baffert in the past few years went from the face of horse racing and a career virtually unmatched in accomplishments, to the person many love to hurl stones at, blame for all racings problems, and outright hate. If you believe that is fair, warranted, just, or deserved this article will not change your mind nor is it intended to. What it is intended to do is make crystal clear this could have happened to any trainer in any race and to spew venom helps nothing. Change, communication, understanding, and working together is the only way to improve the Sport of Kings. Not a one of us is hurting more than Bob Baffert right now. We’ll still watch The Preakness. Many of us will wager on it. Bob will have to go to the paddock and saddle his horse, something he has done countless times, under all types of circumstances and this might just be the most difficult one yet. Maybe he lets Jimmy Barnes do it. Jimmy will do it tearfully as well. I have been in that barn and many others. I have seen for myself, with my own eyes how they treat and care for their horses. Bob Baffert’s barn is one of the best I have seen. Nobody can tell me I didn’t see what I saw except my optometrist.
We choose to play the game. The horses don’t. We put them in the position they find themselves in when the gate opens. Nobody knows what can happen or when. Whether you bet, own, breed, train, serve food at the concessions, walk hots, we all contribute to the sport from the van driver to the gate crew and we all do it knowing the risk for horse and rider. This may blow back on Bob Baffert, that is human nature. In reality it falls on all of us who play the game. We all support it one way or another. No exceptions.
Maybe we start our horses too young. Maybe we over medicate to get them to the races. Maybe we need to get back to the sport and away from the business. Maybe the horse should come first and not the money. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I don’t know nor do I pretend to. Many try and do put the horse first. Maybe that isn’t enough.
What I do know is Havanameltdown is no more on Bob Baffert than the horses who perished at Churchill Downs two weeks ago. That is a reality you can accept or reject but it doesn’t change the reality. I believe Bob brought healthy, happy, sound, and well prepared horses to Baltimore. Nobody in the sport is scrutinized more and he has never ducked that once.
We feel for Havanameltdown, Bob, Jimmy, all the connections including the owners, the barn and the entire team. They all feel worse than most of the haters and slingers.
“We never had an issue with him. We are so careful with all these horses, and it still happens. It is something that is disheartening. I feel so bad for that horse, and I just hope that Luis (Saez) is ok. The way he was riding him; the horse was moving, he was going on with it. He looked like the winner … it’s the worst feeling. And we grieve. We do grieve when these things happen. There is nothing worse than coming back and the stall is empty. He is a nice horse. He could not have been doing any better. It’s sickening. I am in shock.”Bob Baffert
Photo: Havanameltdown training at Santa Anita, Ernie Belmonte, Past the Wire