Injuries are an emotional reality in horse racing

Jun 21, 2005 6:59 AM

"Kitty" was my soul mate.

The doctor told us we would know when it was time to put her to sleep. He had estimated two weeks after diagnosing her with cancer, but she battled with silent courage well beyond that until there was no choice but to do the humane thing.

The trauma is long gone but it’s been eight years. There were countless tears at first. I couldn’t go two sentences talking to a support group on the phone without becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

That’s how it is with pets, as any animal lover can tell you. They become part of the family. We enjoyed Kitty for 15 years, from the time we found her, only a few days old, the last of a litter abandoned in the eaves of our roof.

Now, she is a fond memory that elicits thoughts of requited contentment.

It’s seldom touched upon in racing, but horsemen deal with the stirring reality of losing one of their own on a daily basis.

Thoroughbreds are at once fragile and strong, so vulnerable to the most subtle misstep it can in a heartbeat end their career, or worse, their life.

The most recent horse of note to leave training was Ghostzapper, the brilliant 2004 Horse of the Year who was retired to stud after suffering a hairline fracture of his left sesamoid.

There isn’t a trainer alive, who hasn’t stared a similar scenario in the face, be it a superstar or a lowly claimer. The sentiment of the moment is always present and difficult to overcome.

"I don’t think you can separate yourself from the emotional aspect of losing a horse," said Ron Ellis, conditioner of undefeated champion male 2-year-old Declan’s Moon and a successful trainer for more than 25 years. "That’s one of the reasons I’m so careful, because I can’t stand when they break down. You realize it’s going to happen once in a while and I guess that’s why I’m so cautious with them."

Declan’s Moon, sidelined three months with an injury to his left knee, is just getting back to the track for Ellis, who doesn’t expect him to race again until Santa Anita’s winter meet. Several months ago, Ellis lost Atswhatimtalknbout, who was fourth in the 2003 Kentucky Derby.

"They did the right thing in retiring Ghostzapper," Ellis said, "especially dealing with a sesamoid because when that goes it’s major. You know these things are going to happen even when a horse can be perfectly sound, but you never get used to it."

Ellis is a horseman first, a trainer second. The 45-year-old California native always errs on the side of caution.

"I check every horse every day that I’m at the barn, basically," he said. "I go out with each set. In the case of Declan’s Moon, he had a little heat in the knee that I knew he didn’t usually carry. I had precautionary X-rays taken, which I do a lot, and most of the time they come out negative. In this case, they didn’t. We adhere to ”˜an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ in our operation.

"Heat can be a tell-tale sign of something more serious down the road. Usually with injuries, first there’s heat, then comes swelling. They are two signs that something’s going wrong. That’s why I check my horses every day. A lot of times injuries begin as minor and if they can be detected early, you can prevent them from becoming major."

As for Declan’s Moon, the Kentucky Derby favorite before he was injured, Ellis said he is pointing the gelding to the Strub series at Santa Anita, which starts with the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26, "but he’ll get a couple races into him before then."

No one would be advised to hold their breath, but if the fates allow, it would boost racing’s sagging fortunes immeasurably should Declan’s Moon square off against Afleet Alex in their 4-year-old campaigns.

"He’s an awesome horse," Ellis said of the Preakness and Belmont winner. "He’s the only horse I’ve ever seen fall down and get back up and win a race, especially a race of that caliber (speaking of the Preakness), and for him to come out of it good is really amazing. They say he’s going to race in 2006, so we wouldn’t meet this year, but maybe next year."

That would be a race every animal lover could appreciate.

THE HOMESTRETCH: Change could be imminent at Hollywood Park, if a visit to the track last week from EKI, Inc., a firm of consulting engineers and scientists from Pasadena, means anything.

”¡ According to Daily Racing Form statistics through June 16, of the top 18 trainers ranked nationally by wins, only one, Doug O’Neill, is based in Southern California, while no Southern California-based jockey ranked among the top 18.

”¡ It took the jury about 32 hours to acquit Michael Jackson, or about as much time as it takes him to put on his makeup.