For agonizingly long minutes on Wednesday following the third race, thousands at Saratoga Race Course wondered whether we were going to witness, right there in front of us, the fourth equine death in the first seven days of racing.
Just past the finish line, three-year-old Hidden Face, making her first start, suddenly collapsed. She threw jockey Alan Garcia; both horse and rider lay in the dirt. Both were moving; Garcia stirred, and the filly lay on her side, her sides moving violently as she breathed heavily.
She didn’t thrash; she didn’t seem agitated; and from a distance, nothing seemed broken. But we couldn’t know for sure, and so we watched, thousands of us, nearly silently.
The filly was cooled with water and administered a medication to keep her calm as the track vet checked her for broken bones or other injuries; a few steps away, Alan Garcia got to his feet and walked away, as the crowd applauded. When he was out of sight, silence again fell.
The filly continued to lie on her side; her breathing steadied a bit, and the people around her continued to splash her with water. Would she be OK? Or was she still being diagnosed?
Those in the clubhouse, on the apron, and in the press box just watched, hoped, tried to guess what was happening.
And then a nearly transparent black screen was unrolled, just past the finish line, steps off the clubhouse apron. The worst, it appeared, was about to happen, impossibly close to those watching.
But Hidden Face stirred, and to cries of “Get up, girl! Get up!”, the filly did just that: rolled to her feet, stood up, and shook off the water with which she had been bathed. Cheers, of relief, of happiness, rolled through the Old Spa.
She got some water, and the daughter of Empire Maker got a ride back to her barn. Bruce Johnstone, manager of racing operations, rode with her, and stayed until she was safely ensconced in her stall.
Alan Garcia took off the next race and rode his last two scheduled mounts.
Saratoga has seen three horses die so far: a racing accident on the turf; a paddock accident; a training breakdown on the main track. 17,000 people in attendance yesterday thought that we were going to witness, far too close to us, the fourth. Instead, we saw a worn out filly and a brave jockey go down and, fortunately, joyfully, we saw them walk away. This one had a happy ending.