03/08/2009 11:00PM

It's never easy to witness that last race


ARCADIA, Calif. - So, what kind of day did you have last Saturday?

If you were Bobby Frankel, you spent the afternoon strapped to the back of a wild tiger, coming within a nose and a length of sweeping all three featured events but leaving the place feeling lucky to have escaped with only Stardom Bound's squeaker in the Santa Anita Oaks.

If you were track president Ron Charles or part of his Santa Anita management team, your shoulders sagged with the disappointment of attendance and handle numbers that paled by comparison with last year's Handicap Day, undoubtedly impacted by a news cycle dominated by the parent company's filing of Chapter 11. Marketing VP Allen Gutterman put it best when he said, "The bankruptcy promotion didn't work quite as well as Snow Day."

If you were Helen Pitts, though, it was Christmas and graduation day all rolled into one. Einstein, her very own Black Beauty, put on a grand show to beat a tough bunch in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, while officially crowning himself America's most versatile horse - a major graded winner on turf, dirt and synthetic - and making history as the first Handicap winner trained by a woman.

"I think he'd run on ground glass if you asked him to," said the jubilant Pitts.

But then, if you were in any way associated with Blue Exit - as owner, trainer, jockey, handler, parimutuel supporter or just plain fan of gorgeous, gifted animals - Saturday was as bad a day as it could be.

A massive son of Pulpit, runner-up in the Strub and held at 6-1 compared with Einstein's 5-1, he took his last good step as a racehorse approaching the middle of the final turn, just as he began to give serious chase to Matto Mondo and Einstein up on the lead. Robby Albarado, aboard Blue Exit for the first time, took the long ride back in the ambulance.

"Aw man, what a nice horse," said a despondent Albarado. "He was perfect warming up, and I loved my position. They were kind of quickening up front, and we were in a spot to just go right on through. Then it happened. It makes you sick, especially with him standing there hurt so bad and the other horses disappearing in the distance."

Blue Exit shattered his right front leg at the ankle and lower cannon bone. Somehow, horse and rider stayed afloat on three legs, allowing those trailing from behind to avoid collision, including Jose Valdivia and eventual runner-up Champs Elysees, trained by Frankel.

Good job, Robby," Valdivia said, as Albarado headed for the showers. Jockeys who hang tough in such situations are admired.

"I had only Court Vision" - under Ramon Dominguez - "beat at the time, and I was maybe three lengths behind Robby," Valdivia said. "About then I just happened to move out a lane, and two jumps later he goes. It was so loud I even heard it. A loud 'pop!'

I heard Dominguez holler from behind me, so I moved out a little more, because when they go like that, their momentum will carry them to the right, especially on the turn. I didn't hear Dominguez go down, so I knew he must have made it around."

Before the race, Blue Exit acted as if he were ready to take complete charge. Neck bowed and blinkered, he pulled three handlers around the saddling barn as Jerry Hollendorfer and his assistant, Dan Ward, tried to keep the big horse cool. Blue Exit put on a show in the walking ring as well, eliciting oohs and ahhs as the waning sunlight flared against his deep bay coat. Barely a half-hour later and he was dead, mercifully euthanized in the equine ambulance.

"He was a phenomenal-looking animal," said Wade Byrd, the Hollendorfer veterinarian who immediately attended to Blue Exit once the ambulance left the track. A second vet, Vince Baker, consulted as well.

"It's so unfortunate that some of the worst breakdowns happen to a sound horse like that," Byrd went on. "But there wasn't even a question of trying to do a surgery, any sort of attempt. All the questions were answered right then.

"There's really only about five major things that can happen to an ankle, because it's really made up of four bones and a lot of ligaments," Byrd added. "When they break down in those high-speed injuries, they're non-discriminatory. It wasn't anything we haven't seen before."

But not too often recently, at least over the Santa Anita Pro-Ride main track, which yielded a final 10-furlong time of 2:01.93 for Einstein's performance. For whatever reason, there had been only one racing fatality before Blue Exit in calendar 2009. Any temptation, though, to get too smug about such a record is erased by the fact that Blue Exit died just a few yards from the gravesites of champion Lamb Chop, who broke down trying to beat colts in the 1964 Strub Stakes, and champion Roving Boy, who suffered fatal injuries while winning the 1983 Alibhai Handicap.

So the day ended with an empty stall No. 1 in the Hollendorfer barn, the mood a far cry from the stable celebration of Heatseeker's victory in the race the year before. Down the road, Einstein dove impatiently at his hayrack while waiting for his oats to cook, while around the corner, in the visitor's barn, traveling assistant Andrew Morris waxed philosophical about the tumultuous Handicap trip experienced by the English invader Dansant, who barely avoided Blue Exit only to find more trouble in the stretch before finishing a noble sixth.

"They stopped him when he was just getting into top gear," Morris said. "At least he's all right - that's the main thing. But could we have a rerun, please?"

If only.