08/12/2010 2:52PM

Loss of Tuscan Evening hits hard for Hollendorfer


DEL MAR, Calif. – Tuscan Evening lived in the first stall on the west side of the facing shed rows occupied by the Jerry Hollendorfer horses this summer at Del Mar. You couldn’t miss her.

As the reigning queen of the California turf, along with her newfound following in the Midwest, Tuscan Evening had the star power of a champion in the making. Preparing for her next start in the Beverly D. at Arlington Park, on Aug. 21, she left that stall for the last time last Sunday morning for a work on the Del Mar grass.

It didn’t take long for word to get around. Tuscan Evening completed her work and then collapsed. Hollendorfer and his assistant, Dan Ward, got to her as quickly as they could, and she was still alive, but barely. In a matter of moments, Tuscan Evening was gone.

“Before we got there, we knew what must have happened,” Hollendorfer said. “Of course, it could have been something other than a heart attack. She could have bled to death internally, or ulcers ruptured. And sometimes you never really find out.”

As of Thursday, results of the necropsy were pending.

“Make no mistake, something like that hits you hard,” Hollendorfer said. “I’m sure it affects us more than we like to let on. I’ll tell you what, I shed some tears for her.”

It is an undeniable attribute of a patriarchal society that the high-profile death of a female tends to weigh more heavily on the public consciousness than the demise of an equivalent male. Guys, we can slaughter by the thousands. But the ladies . . .

So it goes in horse racing as well. The everlasting traumas tend to be fueled by fillies and mares, and this reporter is hardly immune. Not even the shadowy, black-and-white television images of the 1964 Charles H. Strub Stakes broadcast to a home in suburban Orange County could dilute the awful reality of champion Lamb Chop, her left leg snapped, giving her life in pursuit of Gun Bow. A 13-year-old racing fan remembers such things.

She was not the last. Ruffian, His Windsor, Landaluce, High Haven, Sweet Diane, Go for Wand, Spanish Fern, Spook Express, Eight Belles, Pine Island, Nashoba’s Key, Indyanne – whether taken in combat or dead in their stalls, it made no difference. The game was always shaken badly and ended up less without them.

On Sunday, a fine bunch of fillies and mares will go forth on the turf at Del Mar in the John C. Mabee Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. Richard Mandella will be a bystander this time around, but the race – formerly called the Ramona – will always have a special place in his heart because of a filly named Matiara.

“She was a big, strapping, beautiful thing,” Mandella said, recalling how she won the Ramona handily.

“Then we took her back to Arlington for the Beverly D, and going down the backside she pulled up. It didn’t look like she broke down, but that her stifle locked up, or something like that.

“So I go back to the barn, and here comes the ambulance,” Mandella went on. “All of a sudden it stops, and there’s a ruckus. I go over and she’s down in the van. I get in and hold her head while they try to get her legs worked out. But she just went, right there.”

Matiara had fractured her pelvis, and a bone splinter had nicked the femoral artery. She bled to death, internally, in a matter of minutes. That was the summer of 1996, and in the years since Mandella has taken to heart lessons learned.

“Routinely out of races, we’d get them up late to look at them, with the vet,” Mandella said. “When we did it with her after the Ramona, she was a little bit stiff in her left hind, going up and back. But when she went the second time, she was perfect. And we never saw it again. Worked her for the next race and everything.”

Mandella could, if he wanted, figure that the two were not related, those few suspicious steps she took right after the Ramona and her fatal fracture, weeks later. If he wanted.

“No, no,” he said. “I’d have to be more honest with myself and say that was a hint of a pelvis coming. I just didn’t see enough of it. We didn’t have scintigraphy then, which detects early changes in the bone that can lead to a fracture. And that might have told us something. Maybe.

“Even with all the tools we have today, you can’t catch all of them,” Mandella added. “But you’ve got to keep trying.”

Early indicators of whatever it was that felled Tuscan Evening are even more subtle than looming fractures. There have been studies using electro-cardiagrams to measure the long-range health trends of the equine pulmonary system. And certainly, as one experienced vet noted, it wouldn’t hurt to pull out a stethoscope every once in awhile and give a listen.

Irony aside, there was never any reason whatsoever to question Tuscan Evening’s heart. Carrying the red cross of Will de Burgh, she was the other undefeated mare based in California this year, with six straight stakes wins compared to Zenyatta’s four. On Sunday, her streak ended, in the worst possible way, and now there is another filly living in Tuscan Evening’s stall. Her name, quite by accident, is Scary Ride.

“I thought about leaving it empty,” Hollendorfer said. “But it’s not like we need any reminders. She’ll be in our thoughts for a very long time.”