JC / Railbird


Monzante’s Legacy

It’s been more than a week since the Louisiana Racing Commission concluded its investigation into the death former Grade 1 winner Monzante at Evangeline Downs in a $4,000 claiming race on July 20, determining that all regulations and safeguards had been followed and that there was no action to take. The furor that followed his euthanization, which began subsiding as details of Monzante’s circumstances and final injury became known, has abated.

But Monzante’s fate still reverberates. Sometimes explicitly, as in Esther Marr’s OTTB Spotlight on Sandburr, retired at 10 when he became uncompetitive at the $25,000 claiming level, and sometimes quietly in the thoughts of those for whom he became a symbol of the holes in racing’s safety net. He crossed my mind while reading Jay Hovdey’s column about the 1973 Whitney, which ends with trainer Allen Jerkens reminiscing about the retirement of Onion:

“We gave him the whole year off and then brought him back, and he won a couple of races, for $25,000 or something like that. We never ran him real cheap. Eventually he went to the owner’s farm, where he had a nice field with all the other old geldings. He lived to be 26.”

We never ran him real cheap … he lived to be 26. An echo across decades, of the decisions that humans make, and the consequences that horses bear.

“I Didn’t Want to See Him Suffer”

Trainer Jackie Thacker talks to Matt Hegarty about Monzante:

“I saw where they said he was salvageable,” Thacker said. “That’s not what we saw. We saw a horse that was in a lot of pain, that was suffering. I’ve got to live with that. It was my call, and I stand by it.”

6:15 PM Update: More from Esther Marr:

“He was ready to run,” the trainer said of the gelding, who was jogged the morning of the race and pronounced sound…. Thacker said he has successfully retired several past racehorses and given them to people that have re-trained them for second careers. But he had not yet considered retiring Monzante because the horse still showed an interest in racing.

Convocation, Monzante Updates

First, the good news: While thinking of Monzante on Sunday, I wrote a few words about Convocation and the recent downward trajectory of the stakes-placed gelding’s career. Teresa Genaro alleviated any concern by tweeting that his original owners had bought him back to retire him from racing. Ray Paulick has more today about how Suffolk Downs and Don Little of Centennial Farms made that happen after the 7-year-old popped up in the entries for a $4,000 claiming race at the track last week:

The entry raised the eyebrows of several people at Suffolk Downs, including Sam Ellliott, the vice president of racing. Don Little noticed, too, having put Convocation on Daily Racing Form’s Stable Mail, a service that alerts subscribers when a horse is entered to race.

“I never questioned any soundness issues and have nothing against the owner or trainer,” Little told the Paulick Report, “but I know the digression of claiming races and decided we needed to find something else for him to do.”

Little contacted his Centennial partners and began the process of buying Convocation back. Word reached Elliott, who called Assimakopoulos last Tuesday and let him know Centennial was interested in retiring the horse.

“Within two minutes,” Elliott said, “I got a call back from John, and they agreed to do this without hesitation — zero reluctance.”

Convocation was scratched. “It was a seven-horse field, too,” Elliott said. “Racetracks are short of horses and you can’t tell people what to do with their horses. I’m glad I have people in place here who are willing to do the right thing.”

The deal isn’t done yet, but when it is, Convocation has a place to go: Little knows someone interested in retraining the gelding as a trail horse.

Now, the bad news: In the words of Louisiana Racing Commission executive director Charles Gardiner, Monzante “was stabilized” on track, “and in the opinion of the state veterinarians he was very salvageable.” That term isn’t as minimally positive as it might seem, and trainer Jackie Thacker and a private vet made the decision to euthanize the gelding when he returned to the barn. Matt Hegarty reported on Monday that the LRC has opened an investigation into the former G1 winner’s death at Evangeline Downs on Saturday.

For more about Monzante: Keep up via Raceday 360 Wire.

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.

The Monzante case, where a G1 winner runs in a low level claimer, is a BIG flaw in our racing system,” tweeted Alex Brown.

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.