02/16/2011 3:53PM

Tragedy at Newbury

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Tragedy reared its ugly head in the Newbury paddock last Saturday when two horses were electrocuted during the preliminaries to the first race on the card, a 2 1/16-mile novice hurdle. Marching Song and Fenix Two died almost instantly when electrical cables underneath the paddock, apparenly exposed during maintenance work, sent their deathly charges up through the ground.

No humans in the crowded paddock were hurt as they were all wearing leather or plastic footwear. The metal horseshoes worn by the horses, however, acted as a conductor to the electric charges.

Two other horses, The Merry Giant and Kid Cassidy, were shocked during the incident, but neither was injured. Astonishingly, the Merry Giant actually ran in the race which, even more astonishingly, was allowed to proceed. He finished sixth of seven, beaten 96 lengths. The margins in the race: 15 lengths, 11 lengths, 14 lengths, 14 lengths, 42 lengths and 17 lengths, were an indication of how traumatized all of the runners were. Kid Cassidy, who had been the 2-1 second choice prior to the incident, was wisely withdrawn.

The remainder of the important 7-race card, which included the Grade 2 Aon Chase, Grade 2 Sprint Chase and the Grade 3 Totesport Trophy Handicap Hurdle, all preps for Cheltenham's National Hunt Festival, was abandoned as curious onlookers passed by the horrific paddock scene where Marching Song and Fenix Two lay dead under black tarpaulin coverings that resembled body bags.

About 10,000 people were present at Newbury on the day, but only a few hundred were in the paddock area at the time. A spokesman for Southern Electric Power Distribution said there was no further danger at the site, but the damage had long since been done. Immediatley after the incident, grooms said that they could feel electric charges emanating from the bodies of the dead animals.

Marching Song was part-owned by Graham Thorner, the champion jump jockey in Britain in the 1970-71 season who rode Well To Do to win the Grand National Chase in 1972. Fenix Two, who would have made his first start in the race, was a 64,000 euro ($86,000) purchase by J.P. McManus, one of Europe's leading jumps owners. He was trained by Jonjo O'Neill, a two-time British champion jump jockey who won both the Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup aboard the legendary Dawn Run, and who trained Don't Push It to win last year's Grand National.

Both Thorner and his partners, as well as the highpowered McManus, are expected to seek recompense from both Newbury Racecourse and Southern Electric Power Distribution. In the meantime, this tragedy should serve as a wake-up call to racetracks around the world to check out their underground electric systems.