The recent tragic event involving Decorated My Life in the Sweet Life Stakes at Santa Anita brought to mind the heart-breaking case of Mongolian Groom. Those who watched the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic race may remember him as the horse who was pulled up while coming in third and later euthanized. While many reports on Mongolian Groom's death have included quotes from veterinary staff, welfare officers, and trainers, it does a disservice to the horse to not provide a post based solely on facts without any names or quotes. After all, these individuals were responsible for Mongolian Groom's welfare, and it's important to examine the facts of the case to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.
Background to the Race
Santa Anita racetrack had one of the highest mortality rates among US tracks prior to the 2019 racing festival, which was widely watched. As a result, significant measures were implemented to ensure that the event was the safest ever. In collaboration with the CHRB and Breeders' Cup, Santa Anita instituted the most extensive safety and evaluation protocols on record.
Upon arrival at Santa Anita, each horse underwent an examination by a regulatory veterinarian. Trainers were required to submit at least 14 days' worth of veterinary treatment records to the CHRB. To work out on the track, horses were required to pass two exams: one by a Breeders' Cup or Santa Anita veterinarian and the other by the horse's private veterinarian, who had to sign a form stating that they had cleared the horse to work out.
Three days before each horse's Breeders' Cup race, their private veterinarian filled out a form certifying that they were comfortable that the horse was physically prepared to race. Regulatory veterinarians monitored each horse a minimum of five times, both on the track and in the barn. They also conducted the usual pre-race examination and monitoring of the horses from the paddock to the starting gate.
Mongolian Groom was closely examined by five different veterinarians on five different days on the track, and by three different veterinarians on six different days at the barn. One examination even included trotting on a hard surface to identify any potential lameness. It's clear that there was something of concern as he was being watched so closely by so many different vets. The examiners found him to be ‘choppy’ behind however symmetrical in both hind legs. One barn exam also questioned his right hind fetlock, but it was determined to be negative to joint flexion.
“Tracked leaders, chased leader over 3f out, soon ridden, dropped to 3rd inside final 2f, keeping on when went wrong and pulled up sharply 1 1/2f out” This was the official racing post report of Mongolian Groom’s run. Anyone watching the race could see he was running the race of his life, in prime position to collect the $540,000 prize money for coming third. He ran a full mile out of the mile and two furlong race before finally his bones gave way and he was pulled up. Mongolian Groom sustained a severe, irreparable fracture that couldn't be treated or protected. Due to this, humane euthanasia was the only option.
Footage of the race can be found here, viewer discretion is advised:
Post-mortem examination of Mongolian Groom revealed lesions in both of his hind distal cannon bones, which explains the difficulty in identifying which limb was causing his lameness during the six in-barn exams. Lesions in the cannon bone, which is located in the lower leg, can result from repetitive stress on the bone or from trauma, such as a fracture. Despite being mildly lame on his right hind during one exam and choppy behind on five other exams, he was allowed to compete at the highest level of his sport. The question remains: in what other sport would an athlete be allowed to compete in front of millions with fractures in both legs?
Bilateral lameness - Mongolian Groom's case highlights the challenge of identifying bilateral lameness in racehorses. In such cases, both hind or front limbs are affected, causing the horse to appear symmetrical in its gait. The horse protects both limbs simultaneously, resulting in a shorter stride length, exaggerated vertical motion, and an irregular stride pattern that differs from that of a sound horse. This change in gait is often described subjectively as "short", "hikey", or "choppy", which can make it challenging for veterinarians to reach a confident diagnosis. As a result, accurately grading the severity of the underlying problem is difficult.
Time – The veterinarians observing the 110 Breeders’ Cup participant horses on the racetrack had limited time to conduct assessments, as there were many horses passing by simultaneously. With the added presence of normal track population horses, there was even less time to observe each Breeders’ Cup horse critically. Furthermore, image screening such as radiographs, scintigraphs, PET scans, and MRIs have been called for; however, there would be no time to image even a limited number of joints in each of the entrants if it were done by the Breeders' Cup. Even if the images were taken, someone would need to read them all, report on them, and give the go-ahead to run, which would also be problematic.
Suggestions from the Report
The official evaluation carried out on behalf of the Breeders’ Cup board of directors provided some suggestions for improving the safety of the horses:
Pre-identify horses before arrival which have historic indications of concerns that need to be investigated.
Compile a list of “horses of interest” prior to arrival at the venue and scrutinize these horses upon arrival.
Concentrate the responsibility for individual horse examinations.
In-barn exams should be headed by a local regulatory veterinarian when possible.
Pair two examiners, one local regulatory and one regulatory from the horse’s home jurisdiction, and charge them with the ultimate responsibility for an individual horse.
Improve the quality of the on-track observation opportunity.
Designate an observation area at least 110 yards long for the “on track” examinations somewhere along the track and request all Breeders’ Cup horses trot this distance under tack as they enter the racetrack for exercise.
Create an area somewhere in the barn area where the regulatory veterinarians could observe the horses on the “extra scrutiny” list to jog in a circle in hand in both directions if they think necessary.
Unfortunately, incidents like the tragic loss of Decorated My Life and Mongolian Groom highlight the urgent need for more effective equine welfare measures in horse racing. However, it's important to acknowledge that implementing such measures is not a straightforward task, especially given the time, financial, and staff pressures that are often present at many race meetings, which are not at the scale of the Breeders' Cup.
While the idea of subjectively pre-identifying at-risk horses before arriving at the track may seem like a reasonable approach to equine welfare, anyone with experience of race meetings outside the Breeders' Cup understands that it is far-fetched and unrealistic. In fact, it may put additional pressure on trainers to perform and result in a negative impact on horses' chances of running, leading to the dissatisfaction of owners and reduced prize money earnings.
On top of this, the time needed to pair two examiners for each horse, evaluate each horse, and reach an agreement is monumental. Therefore, it's important for regulatory bodies to take the decisions out of the trainers' hands and pre-evaluate horses beforehand using objective techniques such as TrojanTrack’s, Stridemaster’s, Arioneo’s or Equinosis’s technology.
By doing this, on-course examiners can delegate more time to the horses that need extra scrutiny and provide accurate assessments of their condition. This will ultimately lead to better outcomes for the horses, trainers, and owners alike. With objective data, we can ensure that the best decisions are made for the welfare of the animals, without putting undue pressure on trainers or disrupting the racing process