11/30/2011 3:07PM

Hovdey: Tribute to Hollywood's three fallen warriors

Barbara D. Livingston
Star sprinter Irrefutable, shown before the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs, collapsed and died shortly after finishing second in last weekend's Vernon Underwood at Hollywood Park.

For those trying to get past the events of last weekend at Hollywood Park, don’t bother. The images will stick around for a while, or at least they should.

A grand total of 181 horses were saddled and sent forth for the 20 races run on Saturday and Sunday. Of those 181, there were 175 that appeared to have gotten around out there okay, including the stakes winners Jeranimo, Ultimate Eagle, Pacific Ocean, and Stoney Fleece.

Among the runners that didn’t fare so well were Bob Black Jack, who faded to sixth after setting the pace in Saturday’s Citation Handicap; Senor Rain, who bolted going into the first turn of the one-mile Generous Stakes for 2-year-olds on Saturday, and Surrey Star, who was pulled up in the stretch of Sunday’s Hollywood Derby after closely tracking the leaders through the first mile of the 1 1/4-mile event.

Trainer Jim Cassidy reported that Surrey Star, who was 54-1, emerged from the derby with heat in suspensory ligaments but no apparent ruptures. He will give the colt 30 days of relative inactivity and then test the diagnosis.

Senor Rain, who was 45-1, got back to the Peter Miller barn bouncing like he had just won the race, leading the trainer to a different conclusion.

“He’s going to be a gelding,” Miller said. “We’re looking for race horses, and he doesn’t have his mind on business. So we’ll change his mind – call it a form of brain surgery.”

As for Bob Black Jack, who was making his first start on grass in the Citation, he emerged with soft tissue damage in his left fore ankle and will be retired once and for all, according to his trainer, Jim Kasparoff. The record-setting sprint star was in the midst of a second comeback, and not even his anti-climactic exit will dull the image of his victories in races such as the Malibu and the Sunshine Millions Sprint. He may not be retiring sound, but at least he is retiring.

So much for the good news.

Dead horses make it into the mainstream news flow sometimes, though usually only if they come in clusters, or in races of significance, or on very, very slow news days. Let’s face it, the death on Saturday of the $25,000 claimer Waltzing With Blue wouldn’t have gotten past the Equibase chart footnotes had the stakes-class sprinter Irrefutable not died about an hour and a quarter later while being unsaddled after finishing second in the Vernon O. Underwood Handicap for Bob Baffert and owner Kaleem Shah.

So there it was in the L.A. Times, “Two Horses Die at Hollywood Park.”

The truth hurts. Waltzing With Blue was a 5-year-old son of Malibu Moon who had won five races and hit the board 16 times in 29 starts for a touch more than $180,000 in earnings. His record was spread around several trainers, a dozen racetracks, and a whole lot of U.S. geography. When his left leg snapped on Saturday he was favored to win the 1 1/16-mile grass race. He was euthanized after it was determined his injury was too severe to be humanely repaired.

Then Irrefutable collapsed from some sort of heart failure, and Waltzing With Blue, after a life of relative anonymity, made the news. Daniel Vergara, aboard Waltzing With Blue, was examined at the hospital and released. Mike Smith had just jumped off Irrefutable when his horse collapsed.

“He was already acting a little funny,” Smith said. “I thought he was suffering from heat stroke. They went to put some water on him, but by then he was going into cardiac arrest and he just fell over. That was it.”

But it wasn’t. On Sunday, Smith was riding the gorgeous chestnut Cloud Man for John Shirreffs in the Hollywood Derby and loving every moment, at least through the first three-quarters of a mile.

“He was moving so good, I thought I was sitting on a winner,” Smith said. “I had so much horse I went ahead and took the shot to stay clear instead of going inside. I don’t know what he hit, but it must have been something for him to go like that.”

Cloud Man, owned by Ann and Jerry Moss, fractured the pastern of his right front leg. This is the structure between the ankle and the hoof, and such fractures in full flight are relatively unusual on American tracks. Equine surgeons have fusion, stabilizers, and even prosthetic tools at their disposal, but the damage to Cloud Man’s lower leg was so comprehensive that no hopeful prognosis could be imagined. He was euthanized in his stall that evening. He did not make a headline in the L.A. Times.

“The vets call it a ‘Newmarket fracture’ because it’s more common over there,” said Shirreffs, referring to England’s busiest training center. “But it’s a mistake to always blame the track. There are so many things that go into the stride of a racehorse and they all have to click just right, every time.”

Shirreffs could not remember the last time he lost a horse from a racing fracture. This is not because he has a faulty memory. Mike Smith has been aboard enough Shirreffs runners – Zenyatta and Giacomo among them – to know the chances one of them will sustain a catastrophic injury are statistically rare. Because of the nature of the beast, however, that chance never can be eliminated.

“They were two talented horses,” Smith said of Cloud Man and Irrefutable. “I talked to the owners afterwards, and each situation was so very different, but there was nothing I could say to make it any easier. It was just a sad, sad day. Both days.”

There were 181 horses performing for the pleasure of the crowd last Saturday and Sunday at Hollywood Park, and 178 of them made it back in one piece. This is for the three.