The Unlucky Ones
Last week, Convocation appeared in the entries for the first race at Suffolk Downs on July 17. Trainer David Jacobson entered him for a $4,000 claiming tag, or $11,000 less than he had paid when he claimed the multiple stakes-placed gelding on May 9 at Belmont. That race was Convocation’s fourth start in six months following a 14-month layoff that began after he finished eighth in the 2011 Woodward. His fifth looked like it’d be a short, final drop to the bottom — the best case scenario, if he had run last Wednesday, was that he would win, get claimed by a local trainer, start a couple more times in East Boston, and then get listed on the CANTER New England website, where he’d be described as a well-bred former stakes-caliber horse who needed a little time off and wanted to be someone’s pet. It was a relief when he scratched.*
Monzante didn’t scratch from the fourth race at Evangeline on Saturday. It was the 2008 Eddie Read winner’s first race in eight months, and the graded-stakes winner who had earned more than half a million dollars was running for $4,000. It wasn’t his first time in for a tag — that had happened in June 2011, when he ran for $50,000 in his first race following a 14-month layoff. From there, the Juddmonte-bred kept falling in class, his losses rarely punctuated by a win, moving from Churchill to Aqueduct to Delta Downs, from the barns of Mike Mitchell and Steve Asmussen to Jackie Thacker.
Maybe there was no reason to scratch Monzante, even though he hadn’t raced in months and his last recorded work was a five-furlong breeze on June 1. I don’t know what the track veterinarian might have seen during a pre-race examination, or what Thacker felt when he ran his hands over Monzante’s legs. Maybe he just looked like any other bottom-level claimer, a little sore but sound enough. If he had been any other bottom-level claimer, what happened in the fourth at Evangeline would have almost certainly gone unremarked by most in racing: Monzante broke down. Monzante was euthanized.
That’s not supposed to be the end for a Grade 1 winner.
Except, it’s not a flaw: The system functioned as designed. In 2008, Monzante was a stakes horse. In 2013, he was a claimer. He was at his level. What a case such as his exposes isn’t a defect in the system, but the cruelty that is always lurking in claiming racing, which relies equally on commodifying horses and on the ability of the people who participate in it to protect horses from its worst consequences. Too often, that’s where the system fails.
Two years ago, while I and another CANTER New England volunteer were taking listings on the Suffolk Downs backstretch, a trainer called us over to his barn. He had a horse to sell. We followed him down the shedrow to the stall of a chestnut gelding. It was Dubinsky, a horse I remembered from the beginning of his career, when he debuted in a maiden special at Aqueduct. He peaked with a third in the 2009 Hill Prince Stakes; from there, he descended through the claiming ranks. His right knee was swollen, and the trainer told us that the 5-year-old was arthritic before leading him out so that we could take a picture. He’d finished seventh in his last race.
“Dubinsky should benefit from some time off and should make an excellent flat or pleasure prospect,” read his CANTER listing.
He was limping, but alive, and he had a shot at a second career as a riding horse. He was one of the lucky ones. What kind of game is racing that that could be true of Dubinsky, but not of Monzante?
*7:00 PM Update: Count Convocation among the lucky, too — his original owners purchased him with plans to retire.