10/07/2009 12:00AM

No getting over horrific moments

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - On Feb. 19, 1973, the field for the San Luis Obispo Handicap at Santa Anita was rounding the final turn on the main track when, in stunning succession, Tuqui and then Autobiography broke down and fell. Tuqui was a major stakes winner on the grass who was trained by Lazaro Barrera. Autobiography, trained by Frank Martin, was the reigning Eclipse Award champion among older males. Neither horse could be saved.

The memory is a strange and haunting thing, and it jumped quickly into unwelcomed action last Saturday afternoon, summoning the dark recollections of Autobiography and Tuqui when the colts Grazen and Blackbriar broke down within a blink of each other during the stretch run of the $200,000 California Cup Classic.

The 3-year-old Grazen survived, although he suffered soft-tissue damage that has ended his promising career as a racehorse after just seven races. Blackbriar, age 4 and making his 13th start, shattered the sesamoids of his right fore ankle, an injury for which veterinary science has yet to find a satisfactory method of repair. He was euthanized.

Their people were present and accounted for. Damon Stathatos, who bred Blackbriar from a mating of Cape Town and his Dixieland Band mare Dixie Honey, has enjoyed some good days with trainers Charlie Whittingham, Mike Whittingham, and now Matt Chew. One of them was in the spring of 2000 with Fantasy Stakes winner Classy Cara, owned in partnership with John Zamora.

"He was just maturing," Stathatos said. "Every race was a little better than his last. This horse never had anything wrong. He had bones like I-beams. And he was putting a run on them in that race. He wasn't going to win, but I think he would have hit the board.

"I haven't been subjected to this kind of thing too many times," Stathatos went on. "The one I can remember was Act Now. Something similar to Blackbriar, only on the turf. It wasn't until this happened last Saturday that I realized I was just getting over Act Now."

Act Now, a son of Cox's Ridge, suffered his fatal injuries at Hollywood Park on July 20, 2002.

"I went down to the track to be with Act Now when he got hurt," Stathatos added. "That's why I didn't go down there the other day. I couldn't."

Nick Alexander bred Grazen from a mating of Benchmark and his Rubiano mare Hazen. It is of very little consolation to Alexander that Grazen appeared to be on his way to victory when he was pulled up by Garrett Gomez. This was the horse Alexander and his family had been waiting for, trying hard to buy or breed, through 30 years in the business. When Grazen won the Affirmed Stakes at Hollywood Park in June, Alexander suddenly had his very first graded stakes winner.

"It was a heartbreaker," Alexander said. "Unless you've bred them, and seen them foal, and raised them, then break them, through the whole process, I don't think people realize how attached you become. It's like part of the family."

Last Saturday, Alexander rushed down to the track when Grazen was injured, then later accompanied the colt on the three-hour van ride to Alamo Pintado Equine Hospital near Solvang. By Tuesday, the prognosis was hopeful, but guarded.

"He's a smart horse, letting them do their thing with him," Alexander said. "Even out there on the racetrack, when Garrett got off him and held his head to try and keep him from putting any more weight on the leg, he just stood there while they put the splint on him and didn't fight a thing."

There is no trauma counseling for owners who have gone through what Stathatos and Alexander just experienced, beyond the informal efforts of track management and expressions of support from those who have been there before. Santa Anita's president, Ron Charles, was on the scene quickly and rode back to the barns with the equine ambulance that carried both horses off the track.

"Any time you have an incident like that, you've got to take a hard look at every possibility," Charles said. "I just feel so bad for those guys. It's not for want of us trying hard to do the right thing. All I can do is reach out to them and convey how sorry we are it happened, whether it happened to their best horse, or any horse."

The Cal Cup casualties undoubtedly supplied ammunition to those who want to see Santa Anita return to a dirt surface on the main track, as if that is the only answer. But then what do you say to the people who own Pappy's Double H and Glorious Charm, two horses who broke down the same afternoon in the mud at Belmont Park?

"I'm not trying to make any kind of issue about this," Stathatos said. "It may have been just one heckuva coincidence. If you can get consistency in your track, that's all you need, and I think you can get that with synthetics. Whether that's being done, though, is another story."

Alexander had a similar reaction.

"I'm trying to put it behind me," he said. "It is frustrating, though, that they've had the track three seasons now and still don't seem to understand it."

Alexander still owns Hazen, in foal to Heatseeker, and has a full sister to Grazen on the ground.

"I was told he'll be pasture sound, that he'll be able to walk normally and trot normally, and that at some point down the line you could even ride him," Alexander said.

"My grandson is not quite 3 years old," he added. "He told me he was going to ride Grazen some day. He has a hobby horse he named Grazen, and every time he calls me he asks me how he's doing. He just wants to go feed Grazen carrots."