Updated on 09/15/2011 2:31PM

Death in the afternoon

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - As night began to fall on a dark Sunday at Hollywood Park, Mike Pegram stood beneath a tree in the paddock and recalled the first time he watched one of his horses go down on the track. Her name was Favored One.

"The first thing that goes through your mind is to think of the jockey," Pegram began. "You want him to get up. Then if he does, you just get sick.

"You know you're helpless. You know the horse has done everything you've asked him to do. You've got to think the worst. And then, the thought goes through your mind, 'Why am I in this business?' "

The question hung in the chilly night air like a shroud. Exercise rider Andrea DeLong had no answer, as she and groom Alcibiados Polanco walked red-eyed through the mud back to an empty stall eight on the east side of Hollywood's Barn 50-North.

"I've got to be the tough one right now," DeLong said. "I'll cry later."

Robert Aron had no answer, kneeling by the side of his wife, Janice, as she sat sobbing on a chair near the mouth of the jockeys' room tunnel. She had just witnessed the death of their first racehorse, the grand South African mare *, whose left front ankle came apart near the end of the Matriarch Stakes.

"Look at this," said Elliott Walden, as he pointed to the deep marks in the grass where Spook Express began to fall at full speed. "Here's where she must have hit. Then here she's sliding. There with the other leg."

Walden had reason to be there, walking the course, glancing over at the fallen Spook Express and her trainer, Tommy Skiffington, who were shielded from the stands by the equine ambulance. In about an hour, Walden would be asking his 3-year-old colt Indygo Shiner to travel that same course, over the same soft and chopped up ground, in the Hollywood Derby.

"I don't know," Walden said, toeing a huge divot. "I don't know."

By the time Indygo Shiner ran in the derby, and finished last, safe and sound, the body of Spook Express was in repose in a 12 x 12-foot holding pen beyond the seven-furlong chute, where she would stay until shipped to the University of California at Davis for an autopsy, mandated by the California Horse Racing Board for all ontrack fatalities. Her braided forelock was still held snug by a small rubber band. There was grass jammed into her teeth from the impact with the ground. Beside the open wound of her tattered left foreleg lay two pieces of bone from her shattered sesamoids.

"Take a look at a picture of a horse, winning a race, and you'll see them with one leg on the ground and the other three off the ground," said trainer Patrick Gallagher, who was relieved to get Al Desima back safely from the Matriarch. "That's 1,400 pounds of pressure on one leg, one toe, and just the slightest bump or a little bit of a hole . . . that's it. We're very lucky it doesn't happen more often."

The storm that ripped through Southern California last Saturday rendered the weekend events in Hollywood's Turf Festival nothing more than soggy exercises. The Hollywood grass course has never worn well in rainy autumn weather - the clay soil retains water and the Bermuda is dying fast - and yet the track commits itself to six major turf events over a three-day span this time every year.

"The course is soft, but safe," said Michael Dickinson earlier on Sunday, after scratching Bowman Mill from the derby. "We came here looking for firm ground."

Dickinson had walked every yard of the course that morning, digging in his heel at regular intervals. There had been four races run on the grass the day before, while the rain fell, including a maiden race and a 5 1/2-furlong sprint stakes of no particular significance.

"Michael was talking with me while he walked," said Dr. John Chandler, owner of Bowman Mill. "He held the phone to the ground, and you could hear the water squishing. If he can do that with his foot, imagine what a horse would do."

Whether or not the course can be blamed for the death of Spook Express is impossible to say. Management is morally obligated to provide the players with safe ground, without regard to economic impact. But if there were doubts, everyone had the opportunity to scratch. Participation is never required. Julio Canani took Val Royal out of the Citation Handicap on Saturday - "I will sleep good tonight," he said after watching the race. Then on Sunday he scratched Tranquility Lake from the Matriarch.

"After the rain on Saturday I thought the course would be worse on Sunday," said Ron McAnally, who scratched defending champ Tout Charmant from the Matriarch. "I think too much of my horses. It's as simple as that."

It must be noted that the other 11 Matriarch runners made it back alive, the winner was worthy, and the winning time for the nine furlongs was a reasonable 1:50.16 under the conditions. But instead of being recalled in the glow of the pink carnations that adorned victorious Starine, the race will go down draped in black ribbon, and remembered more for the sight of Mike Smith being hurled through the air, then jumping to his feet and rushing to comfort the stricken Spook Express as she lay on her side, descending into shock.

"Mike! Mike! Did she break her leg?" called out a fan as Smith returned to the jockeys' room.

"Yeah," he whispered, "and broke my heart."

*

* Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.