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May 25, 2006 [NY Times]
Sports of The Times
An Unknown Filly Dies, and the Crowd Just Shrugs
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
THERE was no array of photographers at Belmont Park yesterday, no sobbing in the crowd as a badly injured superstar horse tried to stay erect on three legs. There was no national spotlight.
Instead, there was death. In the seventh race at Belmont, a 4-year-old filly named Lauren's Charm headed into the homestretch. As she began to fade in the mile-and-an-eighth race on the grass, her jockey, Fernando Jara, felt her struggling, pulled up and jumped off.
As the race concluded, Lauren's Charm collapsed. No one, except those associated with the horse and two track veterinarians, seemed to notice.
The scene was in stark contrast to what unfolded at Pimlico last Saturday when the Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, severely fractured his ankle in the opening burst of the Preakness. A national audience gasped; an armada of rescuers rushed to the scene. In the days that followed, as the struggle to keep Barbaro alive took full shape, there was an outpouring of emotion across the country and heartfelt essays about why we care so much about these animals.
But I'm not so sure we do, and I'm not so sure the general public fully understands this sport. When people attempt to rationalize the uneasy elements of racing, they often say: "That's part of the business. That's the game."
But there was nothing beautiful or gracious or redeeming about the seventh race at Belmont. This was the underside of the business. The nuts-and-bolts part, where animals are expendable parts of a billion-dollar industry.
The two vets raced to the stricken horse, followed by the assistant trainer Anthony Rodriguez; his mother, Doreen, who served as the hot-walker; and the groom. By the time they reached her, Lauren's Charm was dead.
Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, the second vet to reach the horse, said the filly had apparently died of a heart attack. "This was very uncommon," she said afterward in a telephone interview from her office. "It happens to 1 in 20,000 horses."
I'm not sure how many fans in the meager crowd of 3,741 paid attention to the white equine ambulance that pulled onto the track, or saw the filly being loaded in it.
The filly's owner, Joseph Dirico, was watching a simulcast of the race at a track in Massachusetts with his father and uncle. "She started dropping back," he said last night of the horse he had named after his wife. "That's what I saw. I didn't expect to get a phone call saying she'd had a heart attack. I'm glad I wasn't there. I would have run down to the track, I would have had tears in my eyes. She was a nice horse, a really correct filly."
Last Saturday evening, Barbaro's devastated owners said that these things happened in racing, that it is part of the sport. Yesterday, Dirico said, "I guess that's part of the game."
What is the nature of this game?
Horses go down much more frequently than the general public realizes, and many in the business have noted that had Barbaro not been the winner of the Kentucky Derby, he might have been destroyed after being injured.
Jara, an 18-year-old Panamanian, seemed to take Lauren's Charm's death in stride. He had finished fourth aboard Jazil in the Kentucky Derby, his first Triple Crown race. He said that in his four years of racing, this was the first time he was in the saddle when a horse died.
Asked if he was going to think about the horse during the rest of the day, he said no. "There is another race to come," he said. "You have to think about the next race."
"Everything is equal," he added as he compared Barbaro to Lauren's Charm, who won one race in her career and earned all of $77,363. "But Barbaro could have won the Triple Crown."
The dead animal was loaded in the ambulance and carted to the track's stable area, where it was put on its side, legs bent as if it were still running. The horseshoes had not been removed. The carcass was then half carried and half pushed into an area designated for autopsies. An earthmover helped push the horse against a concrete wall.
I asked one of the track supervisors what would happen now. He said if the horse was insured, there would be an autopsy. If not , then he would wait to hear from the owner to determine if there would be an autopsy at the owner's expense.
Dirico said he indeed might order an autopsy. "I had no insurance on her," he said. "If reasonable, I'd like to have it done for my own peace of mind."
I wondered why he didn't have the horse insured. "Insurance is so expensive," he said. "I never thought it would come to this. I've had good luck with horses."
The gate to the fenced-in area was closed. I glanced back at Lauren's Charm, lying on the ground. Just days ago, the cameras were trained on Pimlico, and a nation cried for Barbaro. I wonder what the nation would have thought about this.
One animal breaks an ankle on national television in a Triple Crown race and sets off a national outpouring of emotion. A 4-year-old collapses and dies in full view on a sunny afternoon and not many seem to notice. Or care.
As they say, it's the business.
But what kind of business is this?