Earlier this month, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board issued an emergency rule that would void the claim of any horse that died during racing or on the racetrack following a race; the action was taken as a result of the spate of fatal breakdowns that occurred over Aqueduct’s inner track this winter.
While the rate of breakdowns has slowed since racing moved last month to the main track at Aqueduct, Saturday afternoon saw an injury that fell on the far end of the gruesome scale. In the stretch of the fourth race, La Festa E Domani, a five-year-old gelding with a lifetime record of 25-1-1-0, fractured both sesamoids in his left foreleg while racing wide at the back of the pack. Jockey Ruben Silvera stayed on for several long moments as the horse ran, limping, before he eventually fell off. The horse kept going and was eventually caught, standing next to the outside rail, right next to the apron.
The injury was horrific, made worse by the distance the horse ran with the broken limb. It was the sort of injury that means the horse isn’t going to make it. Even inexpert eyes like mine suspected that.
So while gut-wrenching, it was no surprise that the screen was pulled out and put up in front of the small crowd that had gathered on the apron. There were some children standing there, and at least one person taking photographs of the injured animal.
Those of us watching cringed that a horse was injured, breathed relief that the jockey appeared unhurt, and regretted that La Festa E Domani would be put in down so close to the people watching from the apron.
And then we watched, incredulous, as the screen was taken down and the horse’s leg was put in a split and La Festa E Domani was walked onto the horse ambulance.
Was it because he was standing so close to the fans? Or was it because this was a claiming race and if La Festa E Domani were put down on the track, any claim on him would be voided? There didn’t seem to be any other reason not to euthanize him immediately, unless by some miracle the injury was less severe than it looked.
As it turned out, no one had in fact claimed La Festa E Domani (no surprise, given his record) and thankfully, even if he had been claimed, it would seem that the new claiming rule would have played no rule in the decision to van him off the track. According to a NYRA representative, the track veterinarian isn’t told until after the race whether a claim has been put in on a horse, making it unlikely that a vet would take a possible claim into consideration when recommending treatment for an injured horse.
And that’s a relief. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I think that the claiming rule is a step in the right direction, but I was concerned that vets might, despite their best, most scrupulous intentions, think about the financial ramifications of a decision to euthanize or not to euthanize.
I am not naïve enough to think that it would be impossible for a vet tending to an injured animal to learn about its claiming status, but I am relieved to hear that that’s not the way the system is supposed to work.
Which doesn’t, of course, explain why La Festa E Domani wasn’t put down right away, unless it was to spare the nearby fans that unpleasant sight. He was euthanized that afternoon, the second horse to be euthanized during racing on Aqueduct’s main track this spring.
I can understand the impulse, if indeed in this case there was one, to avoid putting him down so close to observers, while also seeing it as a kind of denial. If we’re going to enjoy horse racing, we’ve got to be prepared to see its consequences, too (says the woman who literally turned away from the sight on Saturday afternoon). At the very least, if euthanizing the horse immediately minimizes his suffering, in this or in any other instance, then observers be damned: put the horse down where he’s standing. If taking him off the track might enhance his chances of survival, then that’s the call to make.
I don’t understand the people who stood there watching, who didn’t take their children back into the building, who snapped pictures of a suffering animal. In a perfect world, they’d have stepped away and let the vet do her work in relative privacy (as private as anything can be near a building populated by thousands of people).
In the absence of that, all the vet can do it take the best care of the horse that she can, and I write this hoping, trusting that there was a good reason to bring La Festa E Domani off the track before humanely ending his life. We might never know that reason, but at least we will know, the next time we have to watch a vet examining an injured animal, that whether it was claimed or not won’t play a role in what happens next.