The latest controversy surrounding the deaths of 21 horses at Santa Anita reminds us how fragile horses can be.
A typical Thoroughbred weighs about 1,100 pounds, and running at 40 miles per hour, a horse can exert a load of 2 to 3 times its weight on a spindly leg made up of many small bones. The weight increases to 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of force on the leg when it goes around a turn. One wrong step or exhaustion can cause ligaments and tendons to fail, and the bones can snap and sometimes shatter.
“The miracle is not that horses sometimes break down with injuries,” Dr. James Rooney told Gannett News Service in 1990. “The miracle is that they all don’t break down.”
Injuries have struck down horses in their prime – Ruffian, Barbaro, Go for Wand, Eight Belles. But many more horses never reached their true potential, their careers and lives cut short by injuries and leaving horse racing fans to wonder, “What if?”
- Dice won his first five races during the spring and summer of 1927, including the Juvenile and the Great American Stakes. While galloping in preparation for the fall season, he began bleeding from the nostrils. The hemorrhage caused blood to back up into his lungs; within hours, he was dead.
Years later, the Blood-Horse retrospectively named him Champion 2-Year-Old Male Horse for 1927. Trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons once named Dice, along with Gallant Fox, as the best horses he had ever trained.
- In 1937, Sky Larking had won 5 of 6 races as a 2-year-old. In the Champagne Stakes, he took an early lead, then gave way to Menow and kept pace with his rival by a neck. At the point where the Widener track met the main Belmont course, Sky Larking stumbled, unseating jockey Alfred Robertson.
He broke his right foreleg and had to be destroyed – at that time by a bullet to the head in front of 18,000 horrified spectators. Menow went on to win the race and Champion 2-Year-Old Male Horse.
- In 1963, Raise a Native was fulfilling all the promises that his sire, Native Dancer, delivered on a decade earlier. He was undefeated in four starts and had set or equaled track records in three of those races. But while training for the Sapling Stakes, he hit a soft spot in the dirt and was lame when he came back to the stable.
An examination showed a bowed tendon in his left front leg; although his handlers were at first hopeful that he would return to racing as a 3-year-old, he was retired less than a week later. He was still named the top 3-year-old in the Experimental Handicap the next year. He was a huge success at stud, siring 74 stakes winners, including Majestic Prince and Alydar, and was the grandsire of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed.
- Hoist the Flag was 2-year-old Champion Male Horse in 1970, having won 3 of 4 starts. The one race he didn’t win was a disqualification in the Champagne Stakes, in which he actually finished first. He continued his domination in 1971, winning his first two starts by a combined 22 lengths. But following a workout for the Gotham Stakes, the colt stepped awkwardly and fractured his right hind leg in two places. He underwent surgery and was retired. “Hoist the Flag was the best I’d seen for a while,” said rival trainer Woody Stevens.
- Roving Boy lost his first two starts in 1982, then rattled off five straight wins, including four stakes wins, to earn Champion 2-Year-Old Male Horse. During a workout in late January, though, he suffered a hairline fracture of his left front cannon bone and was out of the Triple Crown picture.
After surgery and a six-month layoff, he began training again and finished second in a race in October. On November 2, 1983, he completed his comeback by winning the Alibhai Handicap at Santa Anita, but about 20 yards past the finish line, he collapsed, breaking bones in both back legs. He was euthanized later.
- In 1993, Dehere became the first horse in almost 80 years to sweep the juvenile Triple Crown at Saratoga. He bled from the lungs during the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and finished a disappointing eighth, but the next year, he bounced back to take the Fountain of Youth Stakes by ¾ of a length over Go for Gin.
Then in March – again, after a normal workout – Dehere began favoring his back right leg. X-rays revealed a series of cracks in the cannon bone, and he missed the Triple Crown series. He began his comeback in late fall, but the injury did not heal properly, causing soreness, and he was retired.
- Eskendereya did not have a stellar 2-year-old season, winning only one of three races, but something happened over the winter break. He won the Fountain of Youth Stakes by 8 1/2 lengths and then dominated the Wood Memorial, winning by almost 10 lengths. He was immediately made the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.Just a week before the Derby, though, trainer Todd Pletcher scratched the colt from the race because of swelling in the horse’s left front leg. It turned out to be a soft tissue injury, one that was serious enough to have owner Ahmed Zayat to retire the horse only 12 days after the horse was injured. Pletcher called Eskendereya the best 3-year-old he had ever trained.
- Next: Great horses who were late bloomers