When Will Racing Get It?

August 7, 2023

Photo by Eric Kalet

Will Racing Ever Get It?

When Will We All Get It?

An Op-Ed by Laura Pugh

“Get what?” you may ask. When will it get the concept that saying something until you’re blue in the face doesn’t make the public believe it. In this case, “The safety of our horses and riders is our first priority.”

If that were the true, in my opinion, horse racing would have handled this past Saturday much, much differently after the truly horrific breakdown of Maple Leaf Mel.

If the safety and welfare of the horses and riders were truly paramount, I believe the rest of the card would have been canceled. However, many in racing have grown so used to seeing breakdowns that they almost robotically. Either “Thoughts and prayers” or more completely useless rhetoric without any action whatsoever. Then they go back to business as usual because, for the tracks at least, the bottom line means more than the welfare of the horses and riders. It is a business, I get that but it is a business run on the backs of animals and because of that, I think the highest level of care and responsibility is owed and due. Brendan Walsh, whose Godolphin filly Pretty Mischievous inherited the win as a result of the accident nearing the wire, when it was clear Maple Leaf Mel had the race won, donated the flowers given to The Test winner to the lost filly, draping them around her stall. A thoughtful and kind gesture but we and racing need more.

The story of Maple Leaf Mel, owned by a legendary Super Bowl-winning coach, Bill Parcells, who now resides at least part-time in Saratoga due to his love of horse racing, and the cancer-beating young trainer, Melanie Giddings, was a great one. When Giddings went out on her own as a trainer, after being Jeremiah Englehart’s assistant, Parcells made the call to let Maple Leaf Mel move to her namesake’s barn. Yes, the filly was named for her current trainer who spent so much time with her and even traveled with her when Englehart was her trainer. Melanie Giddings would post photos and videos on her social media channels of the two of them together in Maple Leaf Mel’s stall. They were close and I feel for Giddings and all her connections which in part is why this frustrates me so. It should not have ended this way. The thought that there may be some way we can prevent or lessen these tragic accidents haunts me and is the reason I was compelled to write this.

I won’t ask anyone to go back and watch the replay so that they can grasp just how truly awful this breakdown was. But, if you have seen the bitter ends of Ruffian, Go For Wand, or even Eight Belles… this was on that level.

I feel the issue is racing as a whole. Back before the Kentucky Derby, I wrote a column “Are Synthetic Tracks the Answer or the Reaction” to the rash of breakdowns that Churchill Downs was experiencing. In that column, I brought up how overbreeding of the Mr. Prospector lines, most notably the Fappiano sire line, especially when coupled with even more Mr. Prospector blood was seen in seven out of the nine, at that time, breakdowns.

I’m no expert in quantitive genetics, nor even a Bloodstock Agent or commercial breeder, but I feel that it is no coincidence that Maple Leaf Mel’s pedigree features this very same link. Cross Traffic, Maple Leaf Mel’s sire, is from the Fappiano line of Mr. Prospector. Then on her dam’s side, we see Mr. Prospector twice more.

I think if racing put the welfare of its horses first and foremost, breeding would be one of the very first things looked at, seeing as how American breeders currently breed for commercial speed, which let’s face it, is what the buyers and industry demands. Is that conducive to a long, sound career? Are we starting horses too early before proper development resulting in more medicating early? Could these be contributing factors? These are all things we should be studying for definitive answers and we should err on the side of caution. Yet again, from where I sit the bottom line is the top priority, not the horse. There is so much more we as an industry should look at and that shouldn’t be the case. We should be looking at everything to put these animals who give us their all first.

There are a lot of reasons that racing is dying, the least of which is not because no new fan wants to stick around people who “claim” to love horses, then throw their hands up after a day like this past Saturday saying “It’s just part of the sport.” There are so many in this game who truly love the animals and care for them like family, but the industry has to do the same and allow nothing short of that.

If safety and welfare are truly paramount, and not the bottom line, then it’s time to stop talking and take some harder action. Cancelling the card in my opinion would have been a better statement from racing as a whole. Maybe at the end of the day we can’t stop or minimize or lessen these accidents, but until we do all we can as best as we can we’ll never know will we?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Past The Wire or its publisher.

Contributing Authors

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that...

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