07/26/2013 3:50PM

Jay Hovdey: This week a grim reminder of the breed's fragility


Corporate Jungle – Thoroughbred, age 5 – was lying on his right side along the north wall of his stall in Tom Proctor’s Del Mar barn. His eye, turned to the wood-beamed ceiling, flickered open at the approach of a visitor and then closed halfway, resuming his doze. Three of his stretched out legs looked fine but the other, his left fore, was encased past the knee in a padded splint designed to support his freshly damaged ankle, whenever he chose to stand. For now, though, Corporate Jungle seemed perfectly content to remain nestled in his bedding and let the rest of the world turn around him.

“What on earth did you give him to make him chill like that?” asked the visitor, unencumbered by a veterinary degree.

“Bute, sure, but you don’t want to get too much in them,” Proctor said. “You want them to feel some of the pain. He can get up and down when he wants, and it’s okay to be laying down like that because what you worry about is founder in that other foot if they put too much weight on it.”

Corporate Jungle cracked a sesamoid bone in that left front ankle at some point during the running of the Wickerr Handicap at Del Mar on Wednesday, two days before.

“Right now, we haven’t had any complications,” Proctor added. “And when he lays down like that, he’s good. I’ve taken the splint off, and so far it looks pretty good. In a day or two, we’ll see how much support he’s got when he puts the leg down and decide if he needs surgery. You want him to not have pain, and then see how much support he has when he puts that leg down. With what he’s done to this point, he’s got a big chance.”

This is a hopeful prognosis from a trainer like Proctor, who sugarcoats nothing and allows himself very few delusions. A lifetime at the side of Thoroughbreds – courtesy of his father, the late Willard L. Proctor – impressed upon Tom the crushing responsibilities that come with the burden of care required as the proprietor of a Thoroughbred racing stable.

Proctor knows, for instance, that the trajectory of an injury like the one sustained by Corporate Jungle can turn on a dime, and that the woods from which such an injured horse must emerge are treacherous and deep. More is known of the mysteries of the human heart than of the diabolical twists and turns taken by trauma to the Thoroughbred’s lower extremities. The animal is built for speed and stamina but, sad to say, not for recovery.

It has been one of those weeks in the Thoroughbred world, during which the heroics of the breed were pushed aside by harsh examples of its chronic fragility. While Corporate Jungle dealt with his damage in California, St Nicholas Abbey was fighting for survival after fracturing a pastern in training. And in Louisiana, officials were taking a look at the circumstances surrounding the euthanization of the $4,000 claimer Monzante.

Corporate Jungle is a stakes winner who was making his 13th start in the Wickerr. It was reasonable to think that he still had a good chance to enhance his reputation. St Nicholas Abbey, on the other hand, was at the time of his injury the best older horse in the Coolmore empire, perhaps the most accomplished horse in training anywhere, with victories in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Dubai’s Sheema Classic, and the last three runnings of Royal Ascot’s Coronation Cup. He would have been favored on Saturday in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, but as of late Friday he was battling post-surgical complications and listed in “guarded” condition.

As for Monzante, he arrived at the end as a 9-year-old gelding in for a $4,000 claiming price at Evangeline Downs. He was pulled up in the race, hauled off, and later euthanized. This was especially galling to those who, having not paid him a bit of attention for several years, chose to identify Monzante as bred and originally raced by the same Juddmonte Farm that bred and raced Frankel, and good enough to win Del Mar’s 2008 Eddie Read Handicap, a Grade 1 race, when, in cold hard fact, Monzante was a $10,000 claimer dropped to $4,000.

The angels who populate the Thoroughbred rescue community try to be diligent in identifying “at risk” geldings who are taking sudden, precipitous drops in class, who are returning at suspicious levels after long layoffs, or who have become chronically uncompetitive at the lowest rungs of the claiming ladder. Whether or not Monzante fell into this category before the race is open to interpretation, but many horses have been saved from potential disaster because of such unofficial oversight.

“I’ve raced at some places, all people have is $5,000 horses,” Proctor said. “And a $5,000 horse – that’s their ‘big horse.’ I know it looks bad for something to happen to a horse like that, who’d won a Grade 1 stake, but the fact is there’s a lot of horses better off keeping them in training than they would be turned out somewhere.”

Thoroughbred racing is way too laissez-faire to thrive in today’s climate of heightened sensitivity regarding animal welfare. As it stands, man’s horse is his castle – or sentiments to that effect – and regulators have only limited say in what can or cannot be done with that horse. There are some standards of care enforced, but the standards imposed upon those licensed to provide care are not especially rigorous, and there is no central Thoroughbred league office to monitor all the potential Monzantes out there.

What the sport ends up doing is placing its trust in horsemen like Tom Proctor, for whom the dangers of being a Thoroughbred racehorse inhabit his every waking moment. Horsemen like Proctor – and thank goodness there are many – know the difference between risk and reckless, between rolling the dice and swallowing bad luck, between a fluke injury suffered in the heat of battle – as happened to Corporate Jungle – and the predictable consequences of running a horse and holding your breath.

“That’s the first horse I ever had hauled off in the afternoon,” said Proctor, who has been licensed since 1978. “I have in the morning, but never in the afternoon.

“This having a big outfit like I’ve got now, the shocks come more often, and it bothers me, because nothing makes me sicker than losing a horse,” he added. “If I ever quit training, that’s what would cause it. And to be honest, I contemplate it a lot, because I hate it.”

Corporate Jungle, for one, is hoping he sticks around.