(San Luis Rey / Photo Courtesy of Website)
On Dec. 7, 2017, yet another horrific wildfire blew across Southern California, smothering and scorching everything in its’ devastating path. Suddenly, as if directed by the Devil himself, the winds turned toward little San Luis Rey Training Center near San Diego and a home-away-from-home for about 450 horses that run in the glamour of Del Mar style and commute up to Los Angeles’ Santa Anita and Los Alamitos race tracks.
In just minutes, the flames from the Lilac Fire came roaring over the rooftops of the barn area, consuming anything and everything in their deadly and disgusting direction. The intense heat sizzled in and out of the barns that are havens for many Thoroughbreds. The smoke billowed as if some atomic bomb had just exploded.
And, into the fray and hell that awaited, ran trainer Joe Herrick, in Barn I. He tried to save Lovely Finish, a filly who finished second in a race at Del Mar just a month before. A huge heave , and the filly escaped. Herrick had 2nd and 3rd-degree burns over 23% of his body.
Into the furnace ran Martine Bellocq. Her car, outside of Barn E, was gutted and roasted so hot that the metal wheel rims melted into molten puddles on the ground. Still, she ran into her barn and others, freeing as many horses as she possibly could.
Ms. Bellocq sustained 2nd and 3rd-degree barns over 50% of her body. She suffered and cried and survived many painful surgeries that have left her scarred on both the inside and out.
Near Barn L, another backside hand left his feed truck to help fight the fire and free as many horses as possible, before his vehicle was totally consumed and the flames backed him away from the inferno.
Leandro Mora, an assistant traner to Doug O’Neill at the time, and one of several who took great care of Kentucky Derby winners Nyquist and I’ll Have Another, grabbed a shank and his guts and ran head first into the burning buildings.
He was quoted by columnist Bryce Miller in the San Diuego Union-Tribune:
“Right then and there, two horses ran by. They were burned from end to end, the hair was gone and they were screaming. That’s the moment when I made the decision to let our horses go.”
He went in.
He turned horses loose. To run away. To run anywhere but here. To run to safety. To do what they are born to do. Run. As fast as they can.
One of those horses was Belvoir Bay. She ran that day to escape the horror. She ran that day to freedom. For two long days and nights, no one who knew her and could identify her even knew where she might be. Or where to look. They didn’t even know if she had made it. If she had survived.
Her trainer — Peter Miller, who had lost 5 horses in that fire — was beginning to think that the death toll may be six. “It was a living nightmare. I thought I lost her,” said Miller to Miller.
Then, some how and some way, Miller got word that a mare had been found and some good-hearted, compassionate bystanders had found a horse running free. Miller rushed.
What he found was a badly burned and terrified mare. “She was burned, fairly badly in her legs. We had to send her to the hyperbaric chamber, which is what they do with burn victims,” Miller told the columnist from San Diego.
It was a long road back. But it was a road.
On Saturday afternoon, Belvoir Bay — a 6YO Mare and a survivor of that awful day and fiery ball of destruction — won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita.
About 23 months after she ran for her life, she ran the race of her life.
In the brilliant sunlight, she shined brighter than all. By her side was her trainer, and owner Gary Barber.
“We nursed her back to health and the rest is history, as they say. She’s just very special to me. That’s why it’s extra emotional,” said the trainer to the columnist.
(The Player and Buff Bradley / Photo Courtesy of Buff Bradley)
On March 24 of 2018, my great friend William “Buff” Bradley stood in the grandstand at The Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Binoculars cradled against his nose and eyes. All of his attention and focus was on his most favorite buddy and horse of all time — The Player. As the burly chestnut looked like he was about ready to unleash his patented move along the rail and jettison to his next Graded Stakes victory, something ugly happened.
Something that turns the head and forces us not to look.
Something that turns the stomach inside out.
The Player took a bad step. He shattered both sesamoids in his right front leg. Jockey Calvin Borel, The Player’s regular rider, quickly pulled the colt up; jumped from his saddle; and grabbed his friend’s leg until help could arrive.
“I knew as soon as Calvin pulled him up it was serious. Calvin knew, too,” Bradley remembered in a interview with “The Blood-Horse” earlier this year. “I have to give a lot of credit to Calvin for knowing the horse. He said he was traveling beautifully and then he felt something was wrong, so he pulled him up quickly.”
The news was bad. Real bad. After radiographs and x-rays, Bradley and co-owner Carl Hurst got the news they dreaded. “You can try to save him, but don’t get your hopes up. Don’t think good things are just going to happen,” Bentz told Bradley and Hurst.
“The one question Carl and I had for him was: ‘Can it be done?'” Bradley asked about repairing the joint. “He said: ‘Yes.'”
So they tried. And, they prayed.
The Player was shipped to LSU and Dr. Charles McCauley, the clinical assistant professor of surgery at the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “We told Dr. McCauley to do what he had to do. Then Carl and I went into the room … and cried, and we talked through the pros and cons and everything about how we were going to go about it,” Bradley said.
The owners were all in.
Dr. McCauley performed the surgery. He inserted a metal plate and 16 screws into the horse’s leg that held the fetlock together. The Player remained at LSU for 178 long, laborious, tough, struggling days.
They battled the fear of laminates and the truth of lameness. Some of the screws backed out and infection developed around one. Another surgery had to be performed to fix that issue. While there, a farrier was summoned to instal a shoe on the hoof of his damaged leg. The farrier did all of the work while The Player lay in his stall — without any tranquilizer. The only solace was a person holding his head. And rubbing his forelock.
Nearly each and every day, Buff Bradley would call to check in on his favorite buddy. “I’ve known him all his life and have been with him since day one,” Bradley told Eric Mitchell in that story for “The Blood-Horse.” “I have a 100 stories to tell about him. I have more pictures on my phone of him than I do of my kids, and they know that and laugh about it.”
In September of 2018, The Player was cleared and was able to be transported back to Kentucky. Back home. On Sept. 21, he arrived at Indian Ridge Farm in Franklin County, KY. It wasn’t long before Buff found The Player a “second home” and another career. The colt was to become a stallion — at Crestwood Farm near Lexington.
(Diamond Solitaire and Gene McLean / Photo by Leigh Ann Thacker)
In early June of 2018, I got a call from my great friend and horse partner, David Osborne. It was early morning. Too early for a social call. Just right for a bad one.
I answered and waited for the worst. It didn’t take long coming over the phone.
Seemed as if my mare, Diamond Seeker, had suffered a severe bout of colic in the night. Her month-old baby, by her side, and mom had been shipped to the clinic.
As soon as they arrived, it was determined that Mom could not make it another minute. Her baby, kicked in the fray, had sustained a fracture and was wobbly, at best. No mom to nurse from. A leg so injured she could barely stand upright. And, the milk they poured into the bucket in her stall was anything but appealing and nourishing.
The baby was all alone. Scared. Frightened. Hurt. And. All alone.
I told David I would be on the road in 5 minutes. I was leaving my Lake House and I would be at the clinic in 4 hours or less.
All the way home, I worried. Cried a bit. Remembered a lot. Prayed a little. Made a few promises. Promises to do all I can to help this filly survive.
I was in. David and his lovely wife, Lori, were in.
So along the miles home, I made a few phone calls in search of a nurse mare. Hard to find a good one early in the season, much less in June. Hard to find a mom that could and would adopt a month-old baby, too. Hard to find one willing to adopt an orphan, especially one with a broken leg.
After many, many calls, I found a guy by the name of Bill Roseberry. Never met him in person before. Cold called him and he answered the phone. Explained my situation. Explained my orphan’s situation. Begged for some help.
Bill didn’t hesitate. “I have a mare at Ashford Stud. If they are not using her, I will go get her today and have her there tonight,” he said.
When I got to Shelbyville, I went in to see the filly, standing all alone. I cradled her head in my arms and promised her it was going to be alright. Soon, Bill showed up. In a truck. A trailer behind.
He unloaded Geri, and walked this Tennessee Walker right into the stall. He tied her head to the stall. He put cobbles on her back feet. And, he advised. “I would leave her tied up for the night. I would leave the boots on, too. I don’t know if they will accept each other or not, and you don’t want to risk another injury. I will check on you guys tomorrow.”
Bill never asked for a check or money. He dropped Geri and left. He gave us a miracle worker. And, he gave our little filly a chance at life.
For the next couple of hours, Lori and I sat in the stall with the new “Mom,” and the baby. And, we waited. And, waited. And, waited. Then, it happened. The baby nestled up to the side of her new mom and stuck her head under her belly. The Mom, just turned her head slightly, and nickered just a bit. Some how, some way, I think she said, “It is OK. Go ahead.”
The baby nursed. Lori and I hugged and exchanged High Fives.
A couple of hours later, Lori and I untied the mare. We took off the back boots. And, we stood and watched only what God and nature can provide. Adoption. Acceptance. A chance at life.
Geri was in.
For the next 5 months and a few days, Geri and the baby were side-by-side. The first 6 weeks, they were confined to their stall, as the baby’s leg healed. They were constant companions. They were family.
They graduated to a round pen and then to the field, with the other boys and girls. Geri never let the baby out of her sight. The baby never let the Mom out of hers.
In November of 2018, it was time for Geri to go home. It was time for the baby to move on. The two of them had their goodbyes. But the miracles have not stopped.
Diamond Solitaire, as the “baby” came to be known and named, has grown. And, flourished. And, now, as a yearling, looks like she may be the racehorse that both her Mom, Diamond Seeker, and her Mom, Geri, both raised and we all envisioned.
Soon, Diamond Solitaire — the little filly that almost didn’t make it — will go down the road to be taught how to wear a saddle. And, be taught how to handle a rider. And, begin her lessons on becoming a racehorse.
These are three stories of what happens in the horse business every day.
Every single day.
There are more Joe Herricks, and Martine Bellocqs, and Leandro Moras than you can even count.
There are more Buff Bradleys, Carl Hursts, and Dr. McCauleys than you will ever know.
There are more David and Lori Osbornes, Bill Roseberrys and Geris than you can even imagine.
It is what makes the horses business. It is what makes you want to be in horse business. Because it is so much more than a business. It is a life. It is a story. It is emotion. It is something called love.
On Saturday night, Mongolian Groom sustained an injury in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The horse had to be euthanized due to the severity of the injuries. He became the 37th casualty this year at Santa Anita.
There is not a single person that loves horses that can even stomach the sight. It cuts right to the core. It stings the heart. And, it makes you want to puke.
That’s because we care.
And, that’s because we work every single day to take the best care and give great love to our equine partners and companions.
Sure, we can do more.
Surely, we must do more.
And, we will do more.
Truth be known, the Breeders’ Cup should have never been held at Santa Anita in the first place. We all know that. Doesn’t mean that there may not have been a situation somewhere else, but we all know that Santa Anita has had issues with its’ racetrack. Significant issues. None of which have been truly addressed or attempted to be fixed.
Truth be known, Santa Anita has not done what it should have done from the beginning. It should have stopped racing back in the early part of the year. It should have removed the racing surface from the bottom up. Get to the root of the issue. Get to the root of the track.
Truth be known, we all know that the President & CEO of the Breeders’ Cup — Craig Fravel — took a job with Santa Anita, after he convinced the Board to stay the course and keep the event in Los Angeles. The conflict of interest stunk from the beginning. Stinks even more today.
Truth be known, we all know that the so-called “fixes” put in place to help prevent further injuries were simply attempts to distract and confuse. The administration of the therapeutic drug Lasix is not what has caused these issues. If so, the injuries of this magnitude would not be isolated to one jurisdiction. The use of the riding crop is not what is causing these injuries. That’s laughable.
On Monday, Bill Finley wrote an opinion piece for the Thoroughbred Daily News. In it, he wrote:
“There are those who have taken action, and their efforts are commendable. Those put in charge of trying to make this an injury-free Breeders’ Cup did just about everything humanly possible to see that the races were safe. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough…”
That’s a joke.
Truth be known, those in charge of this year’s Breeders’ Cup didn’t do the one simple thing that it should have done to begin with — move the event to another racetrack.
Finley goes on to pen:
“We already know what the reforms must be. American racing must join the rest of the world and eliminate race-day medications. The template provided at Santa Anita by The Stronach Group, which implemented vigorous pre-race and pre-workout examinations by a team of veterinarians as part of a meaningful effort to reduce injuries, must be standard operating procedure at every racetrack in North America. Because the general public does not accept the whipping of race horses, whipping must be abolished. Synthetic racetracks are safer than dirt tracks, so they must replace dirt surfaces and become the norm instead of the exception. Trainers must be scrutinized and those who still want to push the envelope must be rooted out of the sport.”
The rest of the world, hmmm. What medications are being utilized in the rest of the world, Bill? And, how do you know? Is there out-of-competition testing in the rest of the world? Is there ample race-day security to assure no race day medications are not being utilized? The United States tests more horses in a month than the Europeans do in a year.
Whipping must be abolished, hmmm. Ever ridden a Thoroughbred, Bill? Ever tried to correct one from veering? Excessive whipping is an issue. Riding without a crop is, too.
Synthetic racetracks are safer than dirt tracks, hmmm. How much research have you done on this subject, Bill? Ever talked to a trainer about the soft-tissue issues? After all, horses learn to run over dirt and grass. From birth. Not over a waxed plastic that should be confined to a landfill. After all, you can’t even find a plastic straw in California any more.
What is more disturbing, Bill, is what do you do after you implement your changes and nothing really changes? Because these are nothing more than the “spit balls and mud packs” thrown up against the wall by Belinda Stronach and her team of merry disciples. These will not impact meaningful results. Because? They are not the problem. They have not fixed the issues at Santa Anita. Not yet. Not ever.
Yes. There are things that should be done. Implemented. Strengthened. Made mandatory.
Racetracks should be inspected and approved for safety. Not once a year. Not by some team that is sent in for a one-time review. By a team of experts established with the oversight board. On a regular basis. Tests must prove that all surfaces are truly worthy of competition.
If a racetrack has an issue, then racing must stop until a team of experts can do a full diagnostic test to ascertain the problems, and formulate a fix. Race dates can be transferred to another nearby facility until such a remedy has been implemented to the satisfaction of the inspection team.
Pre-race, pre-work inspections should be enhanced.
Vet reports should be reviewable, and should travel with the horse.
Race shoes and plates should be held to the strictest standards of compliance.
Riders should be educated on “horse husbandry” and know what to look for and feel for when warming horses up prior to a work out and a race.
Riders should be warned that dangerous behavior during a race — that leads to suspensions and fines — will not be tolerated indefinitely, and without severe penalty.
Trainers should be held accountable, and when found to be guilty of breaking the rules have both strict and immediate punishment. How many strikes does one get?
The discussion of race-day medications should include all participants. Owners and trainers. It is time to put that issue to bed. Once and for all. Uniformly. Equally. Fairly.
And, the Breeders’ Cup Board of Directors should publicly apologize to the public at-large and to all breeders who nominate their horses to the event for the gross negligence of hosting an event over a track that was not fit, or proven to be ready. And, pledge to only host the event over a track that has proven to be the safest venue in the country at the time.
How about some practical solutions, Bill? Some that can have a true impact. Some that can resolve some issues, and raise the public trust. Some that may, in fact, make a difference.
Since the Breeders’ Cup Classic, most of the world has heard from Congresswoman Dianne Feinstein, and her most recent regurgitations. Since then, most of the industry has seen the quotes from PETA’s Talking Head Kathy Guillermo. Countless others have weighed in, too. Some of whom think they know all — like writers who only delve into the horrific and relish in the story of woe, despair and agony.
But I will tell you this, from my heart.
What Dianne Feinstein is doing and saying makes me want to puke, too. She is trying to gain politically from the suffering of others. Including those that give care and love to the fallen. She is disgusting. Her tactics and public showcasing are pathetic.
What Kathy Guillermo is doing and saying makes me want to puke, too. All she is trying to do is gain financially from a cause that she wants to perpetuate and capitalize. Ask Kathy about what her organization did in its’ “undercover” story in Kentucky. When PETA representatives misrepresented themselves and their employers to gain entry to the backside workplace. When they blindly videotaped and audiotaped their work companions. When they allegedly “spliced” conversations together to render a story that they wanted to tell, but failed to show up in front of the Kentucky Racing Commission to defend. And, how their “undercover” story may have contributed to a horrific suicide of another legitimate backside worker.
Dianne Feinstein would not have run into a burning barn to save horses. She would not have risked her life to help others. She doesn’t even have the decency to recognized those that did, and would again tomorrow.
Kathy Guillermo and her organization would not have jumped to the rescue of a distressed horse, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help save his life, like Calvin Borel, Buff Bradley and Carl Hurst did. She wouldn’t make that drive from Kentucky to LSU every single month to check on a Thoroughbred, and give solace to a friend. Hell, they pay protesters to show up and yell at kids, for God’s sake. Did the organization send one volunteer to San Luis Rey? Did the organization write one check to the Go Fund Me page to help with the rescue and care afterwards? Did Kathy even issue a public statement about the compassion of the rescue workers?
Bill Finley, Tim Sullivan, Pat Forde, Joe Drape and the rest of those so-called sportswriters revel in misery, and work for a medium that has no future. The public has spoken. Newspapers are done. So are you. So — try as they will or must — they are completely irrelevant. Especially when they make no effort or spend time learning what a horse wants to do; was born to do; cherishes to do and how those that spend their lives taking care of them love to do.
ESPN didn’t spend a single second covering the story of Belvoir Bay on Saturday. Yet, the network couldn’t wait to put a crawler on the bottom of every channel announcing the tragic death of Mongolian Groom. Typical. It’s what we can come to expect from Bill Finley, Tim Sullivan, Pat Forde, and Joe Drape.
Perhaps, it is time that the Breeders’ Cup, The Jockey Club, and the industry as a whole do something right and positive in terms of publicity and public perception. Maybe it is time that we do a national advertising campaign and talk about the stories that should be told. And, are not.
(Trainer Peter Miller / Photo by Holly M. Smith)
Perhaps, we can collect millions to talk about Belvoir Bay.
Perhaps, we can collect millions to cover the stories of Joe Herrick, Martine Bellocq, Leandro Mora.
Perhaps, we can collect millions to tell about Buff Bradley, Carl Hurst and the amazing The Player.
Perhaps, we can collect millions to talk about the thousands of horses like Diamond Solitaire and Geri, and their caregivers Lori and David Osborne.
Perhaps, we can tell the truth. And, tell people why we do what we do.
Unfortunate as it may be, there will be a traffic accident somewhere today. A person will lose their life. Doesn’t mean that we stop making and selling cars. Doesn’t mean we stop driving. Doesn’t mean we don’t allow our children — our own flesh and blood — to get behind the wheel and drive off into the sunset when we know they are not ready.
Unfortunate as it will be, there will be an aircraft that will plummet somewhere today. People will lose their lives. Doesn’t mean that we stop flying. Doesn’t mean we don’t get on a plane with our children in hopes that we make it to our destination safely.
Unfortunate as it may be, a crazy person will take a gun and shoot another person somewhere today. Some innocent person will die. God only knows that Dianne Feinstein and her band of merry Congressmen and Congresswomen will never, ever, ever even discuss gun control. Not a mention about outlawing assault weapons, even.
Unfortunate as it will be, there will be other accidents that involve horses. They happen at home and on the farm. They happen in the paddock. They happen in the stall. They will happen again on a racetrack. After all, they happen in the wild, wild west. Wild horses run. Wild horses fight. Wild horses injure. Wild horses die.
In fact, our government — led by the Dianne Feinsteins of the world — allow the federal government to use helicopters to scare Wild Horses into a canyon. There, the horses are forced into captivity and some transported out of the country. There, some horses are injured. There, some horses will surely be hurt and some will die.
Kettle meet the color black.
Now the question remains:
Is the Thoroughbred industry ready to fix the problems, and address the real issues with meaningful reforms?
Is the Thoroughbred industry willing to spend the money to ensure that all tracks are safe, and that all horses that run are in optimum condition to do so?
Is the Thoroughbred industry ready to stop with all the bull about whips, and start considering a meaningful dialogue about medications between all parties?
Is the Thoroughbred industry willing to collect millions and tell our story in the national media, and counteract the bullies like Feinstein, Guillermo and the world of misfit toys like Finley, Sullivan, Forde, and Drape?
I hope the answers are the same.
We are In.
We have a beautiful sport. Led by beautiful horses and beautiful people.
Look at this photo:
That’s Breeders’ Cup winner Covfefe and her assistant trainer. This is what we are about.
Let’s not let the ugly win.