If you know anything at all about Evangeline Downs — and it’s doubtful that you do — it’s probably the track announcer’s distinctive call at the start of each race: “Ils sont partis.”
Or, in English, “They have left.”
Which, bleakly, is what happened to old warhorse Monzante this past weekend. The one-time Grade One winner, toiling in a bottom-level, $4,000 claimer, was pulled up during a race and subsequently euthanized at the direction of trainer Jackie Thacker. Monzante has left.
Not without making an impression, though. Social media lit up with news of the horse’s death. Ray Paulick bitterly condemned the horse’s connections (here). Steve Haskin of the Blood-Horse wrote an impassioned blog post, a post that was up, then taken down, and then put up again (here).
It’s undeniable that much of the outrage has to do with who Monzante was; he wasn’t just another horse, toiling at the bottom. He was a horse with class, a Grade One winner, the kind of horse that, in theory, this does not happen to, from connections who, you know, aren’t like that. Except that, sometimes, it does, sometimes they are.
That our outrage isn’t evenly spread among all cheap claimers isn’t necessarily a bad thing; we need our symbols, our flags for the troops to follow. The anti-slaughter movement needed Ferdinand. And, similarly… and… and, well that’s the question, isn’t it? What is the meaning of Monzante’s death? Something went wrong, but what?
That there are petitions and calls for toothless organizations to investigate and shouting for a national racing commissioner is both predictable and symbolic; we are angry, and we want something, anything, to happen. Somebody, we say, do something.
More promising are ongoing efforts to raise more funds for horse rescue and retirement facilities. These facilities — usually operating on shoestring budgets with dedicated but overwhelmed staff and volunteers — are among the real success stories of recent years. They are doing yeoman’s work, and they deserve our support.
But there’s no indication that Monzante met his fate because his connections didn’t have adequate access to retirement facilities. They chose — perhaps for good and legitimate reasons — to continue to race him. He was sound going into his last race, Thacker told the Daily Racing Form (here); perhaps he was.
The evidence we have now — and Matt Hegarty at the Form has done excellent work bringing it to light — is that, as Paulick suggested, this is less a systemic failure than a human one.
But of course, we humans live our lives within the systems we create; we shape them and in turn are shaped by them.
And the horseracing system tells us this: you alone are responsible for the horse when he’s yours, and when he leaves your barn, he’s somebody else’s problem.
Therein lies the recipe for how a Grade One winner dies in a $4,000 claiming race. Trainer Mike Mitchell and owners Scott Anastasi and Jay and Gretchen Manoogian bought the horse, brought him to the United States, won a Grade One with him, and cashed the bulk of his win checks. And then they let him go for $20,000 via the claimbox; poof — all gone.
Monzante deserved a better fate than to die from injuries sustained racing — because all horses deserve a better fate than that. But that is the fate that some of them suffer, and, unfortunately, there’s not always much we can do about that. Racing’s a tough game, and horses are fragile animals.
But to the not inconsiderable extent that our outrage stems from Monzante’s decorated past, then it is directed fairly only at one group of people: those for whom he won a Grade One race and hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are the ones who took the joyride to the sport’s heights with Monzante; it was, or should have been, their responsibility to ensure he did not plumb its depths.
Of course, every owner and trainer should take the best care possible of every horse in the barn, whether a Grade One winner or a lifetime maiden. They deserve no less.
And in the long run, racing needs a more elaborate equine safety net funded by a percentage skimmed off every transaction, from the stud fee to the sales ring to the purse account to the claimbox. It needs to replace the current system of fee-simple ownership with a concept promoting a chain of responsibility, in which we all share in ensuring the right outcomes for our horses.
That’s in the long run. That will take time and concerted effort.
But in the meantime, certainly it’s not too much to ask the connections of top runners to keep them in their stable mail, even after they leave their barns, and to try to make provision for their care down the road. If we want the guy who owned Monzante the nickel claimer to be responsible, surely it’s not too much to ask the people who owned Monzante, the Grade One winner, to do the same.