Billy Reed: Following Mongolian Groom’s death at Santa Anita, horse racing needs an immediate fix

Billy Reed: Following Mongolian Groom’s death at Santa Anita, horse racing needs an immediate fix
Billy Reed

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - The late Mongolian Groom, who suffered a fatal leg injury in the Breeders Cup Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita, may be remembered as the horse who saved thoroughbred racing. It all depends on whether the industry is willing to undergo some dramatic changes.

The industry had approached the two-day Breeders Cup program with a mixture of fear and loathing. Since last Dec. 26, a shocking total of 36 horses had died in training or racing accidents. The sport was under pressure from animal rights groups as never before. A death in the Breeders Cup, on national TV, would give more ammunition to those who want the sport to die.

Through the first 13 races, a total of 142 thoroughbreds went to the post and all returned safely. But just as the sport was waiting to exhale, Mongolian Groom, who was out of contention in the Classic, bobbled and was pulled up by jockey Abel Cedillo. Fans could see his left hind leg dangling grotesquely before an ambulance arrived and attendants were able to put up a screen to block the view.

Up the track, a furious stretch duel between Vino Rosso and McKinzie ended with Vino Rosso winning the Classic. But while jubilation reigned in and around the winner’s circle, Mongolian Groom was loaded into the ambulance and taken to a nearby equine hospital, where he was mercifully euthanized two hours after the Classic had started.

So the final lingering image of the 2019 Breeders Cup required a split screen – one side showing the jubilation of Vino Rosso’s fans, the other the sight of an equine ambulance carrying the soon-to-be-dead Mongolian Groom off to the hospital.

There is never anything good about an equine fatality. The horses die doing what they were bred to do – run as fast as possible for as long as possible. In this case, however, the breakdown and death of Mongolian Groom will prevent the sport from sweeping the problem under the rug and maintaining the status quo. Thoroughbred racing must change or die by suicide.

You have to understand the racetrack mentality. Owners, trainers, jockeys, racing officials and track owners all want to be left alone to run their sport/business as they see fit. They become resentful when an “outsider,” be it a newspaper reporter or an animal-rights activist, begin sticking their noses into this most secretive of all sports.

They welcome new investors and take their money. They welcome the betting public and take their money. But when it comes to transparency, they get prickly and close ranks. They pay only lip service to the notion that honesty is the best policy.

Now, in the wake of Mongolian Groom’s death, here are 10 things the sport needs to do:

It’s past time for racing to have a national governing body, the way just about every other sport does. This body, which may be headed by a commissioner, needs to adopt a uniform rules book that will be used by every state and country in North America.

An arm of the new governing body would be a revival of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, an FBI-like organization that would have agents at every track and police powers such as conducting random searches of barns.

The new TRPB must crack down on crooked owners, trainers, veterinarians, and racing officials. These are the scoundrels who race horses they know to be lame or hurting. The penalties can range from stiff fines to suspension from the sport.

The industry should invest in a new public-relations strategy devoted to transparency. This new agency would use the traditional forms of media – newspapers, TV, and radio – but also “social media.” No longer would the sport be involved in cover-ups or pushing misleading information.

Medication policies must be re-evaluated, and meticulous records kept on each horse. Too many horsemen try to beat the rules instead of honoring them. New rules regarding what medications are legal and how they are used must be put in place.

The majority of the world’s breeding farms are located in Kentucky and other places where the soil and water are believed to be rich in limestone, all the better to build strong bones. This must be reassessed. Have there been changes in the limestone content?

Back in the day, breeders desired both speed and stamina in their foals. But that balance seems to have gotten out of whack. The need for speed has increased dramatically because Americans seem to like shorter races. One result is that today’s thoroughbreds seem more fragile than their ancestors.

Racetrack owners must put in place the safest racing surfaces available. Even if it means slower times, the safety of the horses must come before all else.

The penalties for reckless riding should be increased. Any jockey who puts his horse, or his competitors, in harm’s way should automatically be suspended for a month, longer if necessary.

Racing officials are too often political appointees who don’t know much about the sport. Before they can accept an appointment to a racing commission, they must undergo a background test and be required to educate themselves about the rules of racing. Breeders, owners, and trainers who are still active in the sport should be disqualified due to the possibilities of conflict of interest.

I think that would be a pretty good start toward regaining and maintaining the public’s confidence. It also would clearly address the issue of equine safety. There still would be accidents, of course, because no horse, like no human, is indestructible. But at least the industry would show the world that it really cares about the animals who risk their lives to put on the show.

If this sort of change can be accomplished, the most important horse at this year’s Breeders Cup won’t be any of the 142 that came home safely. It will be the one that broke down in the Classic, forcing the industry to address issues that have too long been ignored.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter and regular contributor of sports columns to WAVE3.com. Contact him at billyreedcolumns@gmail.com.

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