The jockeys walk the stewards through their ride in one of the most controversial Kentucky Derbys in history. Louisville Courier Journal
About a week before this year’s Kentucky Derby, trainer Richard Mandella was entertaining reporters at his barn, telling jokes and stories before being asked a weighty question about horse racing’s lack of appeal to younger generations.
What would he say to them?
“Give it a chance,” Mandella replied with thoughtful emotion. “Go to the races. You don’t have to go to gamble. Go watch the procedure. Go to the paddock. Look at the horses. If you look into their eyes, some of you will connect. You think back, for hundreds of years, maybe a thousand years, man and horse have worked together. They’ve played together.
“… This is kind of the last grasp of that. Let’s don’t let it go.”
Days later, Mandella pulled the morning-line favorite out of the biggest race the Hall of Fame trainer has never won among his more than 2,000 victories. Omaha Beach may have been good enough to win the 2019 Kentucky Derby, but we’ll never know for sure. Health concerns forced an excruciating – yet necessary – decision in the horse’s best interest.
This past week, a 3-year-old filly named Truffalino collapsed while racing and died, becoming the 29th horse fatality at Santa Anita since the start of its meet in December.
Truffalino was trained by Mandella, who told the Daily Racing Form “they think it was a heart attack.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I wish I had an answer.”
He’s not alone.
With each new equine death, the perception of a sport in crisis accelerates. The most recent Santa Anita injuries don’t appear related to the track surface, as was the case with so many earlier in the meet, but that doesn’t matter at this point.
Concern and panic justifiably are at an all-time high – but much of that anxiety is rooted in a lack of understanding of these terrible tragedies. A lot of people who otherwise don’t pay any attention to this sport are paying attention to its most horrific aspect.
And they are asking for answers that don’t exist. The hard truth: Horse racing can’t stop these catastrophic injuries from happening.
Steps can, should and are being made to improve safety, but horse fatalities are going to happen despite the best efforts to prevent them. Just like elite athletes in other sports suffer career-threatening injuries that sometimes lack explanation, tragic misfortune befalls horses as well.
A leg injury doesn’t just derail a horse’s career – it can be life-threatening. The vast majority of racehorses aren’t dealt such a tragic fate, but fatal ailments can find any horse, including ones far from a racetrack.
Equine fatalities are getting more attention now, but they’re far from new. If that’s a secret to many, it’s because everything in horse racing is a secret to many.
Horse racing is a sport with many problems, and its lack of transparency is perhaps where it most often fails to get out of its own way. This is an insular and guarded world, even more so when threatened by outsiders determined to see the worst.
But when an industry under fire operates secretively, it tends to validate its critics. It will be viewed more suspiciously, which keeps the public from understanding how tirelessly owners, trainers and others work and spare no expense to try to prevent horse fatalities from occurring.
Some would choose to view horse trainers as they would Bud Kilmer, the merciless, villainous, win-at-any-cost Texas high school football coach portrayed by Jon Voight in the movie “Varsity Blues,” eager and willing to dope players and mask known injuries.
In reality, there is no group that collectively, with few exceptions, loves these racehorses more than their trainers. This, above anything, is what trainers want the general public to understand while often fearing that it does not. It is their unending job to protect horses and keep them happy. When a trainer loses a horse to catastrophic injury, it feels like a death in the family, even weeks and months later. It never really goes away.
These people are not an enemy of horses. Far from it.
And most people, inside or outside the sport, who would be appalled by news out of Santa Anita and in support of meaningful change are not the enemy of horse racing either.
A recognition of how unavoidable and tragically fluky these fatalities can be, and how much goes into preventing them, could help curtail confusion. But fatal injuries aren’t going away, and neither is the spotlight on them.
Horse racing needs to own that and work to remove the sinister aspects that accompany the unknowns. Each state’s racing commission needs to be more accountable and transparent. It needs to investigate for the public, offering better and detailed explanations of the circumstances that led to each fatality and what is being done to prevent it from happening again.
Tracks need to be more willing to treat these instances as the tragedies they are and not try to downplay or ignore them. Show the emotional toll these deaths take on those closest to the horse. The public can’t be expected to understand that aspect otherwise.
As is, there’s a frantic sense that everyone is just holding their breath until tragedy strikes again, with hopes being that it won’t happen during a Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup race with the world watching.
Trainers, however, were holding their breath anyway. They do it every day.
There might not be a more seasoned, caring trainer in racing than Richard Mandella.
If one of his horses can die suddenly, anyone’s can.