Santa Anita breakdown complicates vexing day of racing

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

After successfully protesting the result, jockey John Velázquez and Code Of Honor were led to the winner’s circle at Belmont Park after Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup. (Coglianese photo/NYRA)

Arcadia, California


A racing day that was not going swimmingly went all to hell Saturday at 4:13 p.m. That is when a horse broke down badly here at Santa Anita.


And so animal-rights protesters and anti-racing activists have been refueled only 17 races into the fall meet by the first death in 111 days of a thoroughbred during a southern California race.


For the record, it was a 3-year-old colt named Emtech. His left-front leg buckled in the stretch in front of a crowd already subdued on a surprisingly damp and gray day. With both front legs broken, he was euthanized on the track. His jockey Mario Gutiérrez lay on the track for several minutes before he walked on his own into the ambulance.


It was the 32nd racehorse death at a racecourse that has been cursed for nine months. What makes this one different is a smoking gun that comes from Emtech’s past performances from here last October.




That is shorthand for a voided claim. Someone tried to buy Emtech, but veterinarians decided that day that he was not sound.


“On Oct. 29 (last year) he failed a workout that would have removed him from the list (of unfit horses),” California Horse Racing Board spokesman Mike Marten said. “On June 20 he passed a required, five-furlong workout and was removed from the veterinarian’s list. After passing five examinations and racing successfully for (July 6 and Aug. 8) races, he was not flagged for special attention in his subsequent races.”


Whether Emtech should have been back on that list before he set foot on the track Saturday is a matter that will be the grist for more discussion. And more hand wringing.


“We will open an immediate review into what factors could have contributed to Emtech’s injury,” track veterinarian Dr. Dionne Benson said in a statement. “Emtech will undergo a necropsy at (UC) Davis ... as is mandatory for all on-track accidents.”


The ugly breakdown happened amid some odd circumstances both here and at Belmont Park in supposedly big races that had frustratingly small fields and chalky payouts – like $1.65 for one particular $1 exacta.


Most controversial was Code Of Honor (7-2) being awarded a victory in the $750,000 Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. New York stewards decided that he was fouled by first-place finisher Vino Rosso (2-1) during a thrilling fight to the finish that left them a nose apart.


The claim of foul came from Hall of Fame jockey John Velázquez, who flew from here back to New York after breaking the record Friday for most graded-stakes victory in a career. He successfully argued that Vino Rosso’s rider Írad Ortiz Jr. drifted out and bumped him at the eighth pole. “It kind of got my horse off balance for the second time,” Velázquez said.


Frankly, the call could have gone either way, but that does not matter now. The New York stewards’ decision complicated an already muddled competition for champion 3-year-old male. Code Of Honor is now a two-time Grade 1 winner this year, joining Maximum Security. Yes, the same Maximum Security that crossed the finish line first in three Grade 1s. But he gets credit for only two because of his disqualification seemingly a hundred years ago in the Kentucky Derby.


Since Maximum Security has been shut down for the rest of the year, what happens if Code Of Honor were to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic? In the eyes of voters, would his win Saturday taint his case the same way that that temporary victory in the Derby might be a crucible for Maximum Security? (By the way, I was just now talking to myself, because I have a vote.)


Of note for horseplayers who refuse to settle for a lack of domestic futures markets, Code Of Honor is still the second choice to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic here on Nov. 2. According to Oddschecker, he held steady in Europe at a best price of 5-1. But Vino Rosso went from 25-1 to 16-1, even though he is still without the automatic berth into the Classic that Code Of Honor already enjoys.


McKinzie remains the favorite to win the $6 million race, but he drifted from 3-1 to 4-1. That was after he was upset here in Saturday’s feature, the $300,000 Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes.


Winless in seven previous graded stakes this year, Mongolian Groom (25-1) led from gate to wire, holding off McKinzie (3-10) by 2¼ lengths. The 4-year-old gelding sired by Hightail was easily the longest shot to win any of the six otherwise chalky Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup win-and-you’re-in races on either coast since Friday.


“I didn’t think he’d win,” winning trainer Enebish Ganbat said through an interpreter. “He was up against the two best horses in America in McKinzie (yes, on dirt) and Higher Power (very debatable). I thought I’d be happy if the horse finished third.”


The victory also means that with a hefty fee to nominate his sire, Mongolian Groom would be eligible to race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He has yet to appear in any futures markets. Yet.


But the fascinating story of Mongolian Groom – owned by Mongolian Stable, winner of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint with Mongolian Saturday – will have to wait for another day. Unfortunately, this day was completely overshadowed by what happened just past the eighth pole here at 4:13 p.m.


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races, including next week from the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.

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