Belmont tragedy felt at Laurel, but show goes on

JOHN EISENBERG

November 01, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

LAUREL -- Marco Castaneda was there last weekend at Belmont. He was on another horse in the race, behind the leaders and far from the rail. "So far outside that I didn't see it," he said.

But he heard it. "I heard the crowd, is what I heard," he said. "Twenty-five years I've been riding, and I've never heard a noise like that. The people were cheering and cheering, and then everyone just went 'ohhhhhhh.' The weirdest sound. I knew something was up. Then I turned around and saw the filly on the ground."

Castaneda was back riding at Laurel the next day, though, and he has not missed a day since. "Things like that are real unfortunate, but the show must go on," he said in the jockeys' room the other day.

Indeed. From the most hardscrabble groom to the wealthiest owner, the people whose life and love is racing have carried on in the aftermath of the awful and very public death of Go for Wand during the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Saturday.

For some, it is easy. Horses breaking down is grim, but it happens somewhere every day, and building defenses against it is a necessary insurance against multiple heartbreak. "Horseman accept that this is something that can happen," said King Leatherbury, Maryland's top trainer.

This one was different, though -- such a wonderful horse, such a dramatic death. The sight horrified the casual fan and shook all but the most imperturbable souls in the business, and although everyone at Laurel is succeeding at carrying on, the melancholy below the surface is almost palpable.

"It shook a lot of people up," said John Lenzini Sr., a trainer. "I guess you could say people are depressed. I wish they hadn't shown the replay on television so many times. My wife, she got upset. I told her, 'Honey, you have to expect it.' The horses have such little legs. They get so fatigued."

Lenzini was sitting on a bench outside the paddock. His horse had just finished third in the eighth race. "But people have this great love for animals, you see," he said. "You see something terrible like that and you just don't want to accept it."

Certainly, anyone who saw it will not soon forget it. The two fillies matching strides for a mile. The roar of 55,000 fans reaching a crescendo. Go for Wand taking a bad step and toppling over by the rail. The emotion disappearing from the announcer's call. The trainer's wife turning her head. The filly standing up, and, instinctively, heartbreakingly, galloping to the finish line on three legs, then collapsing.

"I'm glad I didn't see it happen live," said Andrea Seefeldt, another jockey.

She missed it because she was traveling to the Meadowlands, where she had mounts Saturday night.

"I saw the replay, and if I'd seen it live, I know I would have gotten real upset," she said. "As it is, I feel a little detached. You learn to be that way. I got into racing because I was a little girl who loved horses, but you wind up riding so many that you don't spend much time with them, don't get involved. It sounds wrong, but they become kind of like cars."

It doesn't mean she no longer cares. It's just self-preservation. She has had five horses break down beneath her on the track, one with a similar injury, a broken leg.

"I remember laying in the dirt and looking over and the horse was on one knee with his head down on the ground, like he was praying," she said. "I got up and went over to him and he tried to get up and run, but he couldn't. That upset me, stayed with me. Usually, you try to get away from it as fast as you can. It's too upsetting."

Similarly, Joe Tuminelli, another trainer, found himself thinking about a "little 3-year-old" he lost last fall.

"It was one of those things that just happened, and you don't dwell on it, but it never leaves you altogether," he said. "This time, millions of people were watching, and it was sickening, and I've sure carried it around for a couple of days. But it's the same for a $1,500 horse. You hurt. But you go on. You have to."

The truth is that only a small percentage of foals ever make it to the track, that horses simply are not designed to run so fast when they're so young. But to those who complain that Go for Wand's death is the latest argument for the sport being cruel, there is a sharp cry of rebuttal.

"These horses are treated incredibly well," said Susan Wilson, a 37-year-old mother of two who works as a groom at Laurel. "They eat well, they get catered to, they get attention. They get a lot of love."

Clearly, it is the grooms, those who make their living putting their hands on the horses, who were upset the most by the spectacle of Go for Wand going down.

"That's because we get into this business not for the money, but for the love of the animals," Wilson said. "The people around here are still talking about it. Hey, they're depressed. You see something like that and it just brings you right down. That horse was fighting so hard."

Life will go on at the track, trainers training, riders riding, gamblers gambling, but no one will erase the memory of watching Go for Wand collapse. It is one of those events that transcends the game, leaving an instant, indelible mark.

Marco Castaneda will remember the sound. Andrea Seefeldt will remember being lucky enough not to see it. John Lenzini Sr. will remember watching it on television. "It's always sad," he said. "This one was real sad."

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