Del Mar, Calif.
Ohio State was never supposed to be eligible for last year’s College Football Playoff. And then it was.
A presidential candidate who was declared the winner of the 2000 election never took office.
A trainer who was banned from racetracks in New York was nevertheless allowed to race there this summer.
Only in America, right? The land of the free found a way to have a horse win a race from which he was scratched.
Welcome to the 2021 Breeders’ Cup and the tale of Friday’s running of the Juvenile Turf.
When the race was supposed to start Friday, the horse in post 1 reared and hit the back of the gate. That caused his stablemate in post 2 to flip over, throw his jockey and get lodged under the gate. An assistant starter was hurt, and a confused gate crew ill-advisedly unlatched the stall for post 1. That caused the horse to start prematurely. Then came a 15-minute delay.
When the race finally ended in the gloaming of a cloudy, seaside day at Del Mar, the punctuation mark was a chorus of boos from ticked-off bettors.
Where to begin with a story that turned into a succession of errors to end the first day of the annual championships.
Modern Games, who had left post 1 about 15 minutes earlier, closed from mid-pack to finish first by 1 1/2 lengths. For the record, he won. He really won. Just ask Godolphin. The colt’s breeder-owner presumably has the $520,000 first prize to prove it.
Bettors were left with nothing but refunds. Oh, there was also the nasty taste they carried home after it had been announced before the delayed start that Modern Games would race for purse money only, voiding all the wagers that had made him a 9-5 favorite.
Tiz the Rush (7-1), who was second across the line and treated as the winner for pari-mutuel purposes, paid $17.60, $7.40 and $5.20. Mackinnon (6-1) finished third and paid $6.60 and $5.40. Grafton Street (22-1) was fourth and still brought back $9.40 to show. Dakota Gold (5-2), promoted to be the betting favorite, was a non-factor and finished fifth.
Got it so far? Stand by. This story is only just getting started.
Albahr, the other Godolphin-bred colt who was in gate 2, suffered some superficial cuts but was otherwise all right. So was jockey Frankie Dettori, who walked along the outer rail of the main track to retreat to the jockeys room while the 11 remaining horses were unloaded and prepared for reloading.
See video of the CHRB explanation of the Juvenile Turf controversy.
“He just freaked out,” he told NBC Sports. “He went up and put his two legs across (the front of the gate). Thanks to the (assistant starters) for getting me out of there. It could have been nasty.”
One unidentified member of the gate crew was reported to have suffered a back injury.
Because he took a spill, Albahr was automatically removed from the race. That was the easy part. After that, a confusing chain of events unfolded.
“The scratch of Albahr was relayed to the stewards, and that horse was taken out of wagering pools,” California Horse Racing Board spokesman Mike Marten said in a written statement about 90 minutes after the race. “The veterinary staff then relayed a second scratch of Modern Games to the stewards based on initial observation.”
Announcer Larry Collmus told the crowd of 20,536 about each scratch. Yet the pool totals and win odds for Modern Games were not erased right away from the main, infield toteboard.
“I don’t know what grounds he got scratched on,” jockey William Buick said after the race. “My horse was never touched.”
Call it a case of premature evaluation. CHRB executive director Scott Chaney told reporters in a press-box media briefing that Dr. Chuck Jenkins, part of a team of veterinarians assigned to the Breeders’ Cup, made the call from behind the gate to scratch Modern Games based on what happened in the gate, not on an immediate examination.
“We go over and above for safety,” said Dr. Jeff Blea, the CHRB equine medical director who joined Chaney in the briefing. “Having been an ex-jock myself, when these things happen in the gate, it’s very quick. Time is standing still. You’ve got a horse underneath the gate. You’ve got 12 other horses in the gates with jocks on their backs, and you’re waiting for the next time bomb to go off.”
Chaney said the veterinary team, thinking the horse might have harmed himself by crashing through the gate, did not realize Modern Games’s lock was errantly sprung.
“They then re-examined the horse and determined after consulting with the rest of the veterinary staff that the horse was fit and healthy to race,” he said.
Collmus announced that Modern Games was reinstated but would be running for purse money only, causing a grumbling buzz in the crowd. Trainer Charlie Appleby, standing near the winner’s circle, was at a loss to fill in the blanks.
“The veterinarians and stewards are happy with him,” Appleby said. “They won’t be letting him run if there’s any issues at all down there.”
Portfolio Company (4-1), who would finish eighth, assumed the early lead, setting fractions of 22.66, 46.89 and 1:11.24 for the first three-quarters of the one-mile race. As he faded, Grafton Street took over the lead in mid-stretch and looked like he might pull off the upset.
That was before Modern Games, who did not get out quickly on his second pass through the gate, responded in the final furlong to the right-handed crop of Buick and surged to the triumph that was not a win for everyone.
The CHRB cited its rule 1974 as the basis for the chain of events.
“If a horse is removed from the wagering pool due to a totalizator error, or due to any other error, and neither the trainer nor the owner is at fault, the horse shall start in the race as a non-wagering interest for the purse only and shall be disregarded for pari-mutuel purposes,” the rule says. “If a horse is removed from the wagering pool to start in a race as a non-wagering interest for purse only and is disregarded for pari-mutuel purposes, the circumstances shall be announced over the public address system at the time the action is taken and thereafter to adequately inform the public.”
Chaney punctuated his reading of his organization’s statement by saying, “The CHRB and Breeders’ Cup are reviewing current veterinarian scratching procedures to ensure that this does not occur going forward.”
For bettors who wore out their lungs booing what happened, that is too little, too late.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com with more frequent articles this week during the Breeders’ Cup. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week features a pop-up episode available now with Las Vegas bookmakers Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello and Duane Colucci handicapping every championship race. Friday’s regular episode includes jockey Mike Smith, trainers Chad Brown, Brad Cox and Bill Mott, workout analyst Bruno de Julio and XBTV’s Zoe Cadman and Jeff Siegel. The RFRP is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.