07/23/2009 11:00PM

Somber days at O'Neill's Del Mar barn


DEL MAR, Calif. - The crew at the Doug O'Neill stable had less than a day to celebrate their title at Hollywood Park earlier this week when cold reality rose up to smack the joy right out of them.

Ignacio Lara Velasco, the man they all called Nacho, shipped south to Del Mar on Monday and was helping set up the barn and bed down the load. At some point, though, Velasco began to have a hard time swallowing. He was feeling weak. Assistant trainer Leandro Mora took one look at him and ordered Nacho be taken to a doctor, so Velasco headed to his family home in Tijuana. The next day came the news that Nacho had died during the night.

Velasco, 74, had worked for the late Richard Matlow for decades, but Matlow - who died March 30 - had disbanded his stable last January to deal with his progressing ALS. O'Neill hired Velasco and was glad he did.

"Nacho was a great role model for the rest of the crew and a great guy," O'Neill said. "He still pulled his weight around the barn, too. He'd walk them all if you needed him to. We were still trying to make sense out of his death, and then we lost Mi Rey."

While the passing of Nacho Velasco was quietly absorbed by the backstretch community, Mi Rey's fatal breakdown in the third race Wednesday hit like a sucker punch to the gut of everyone who had anything to do with Del Mar's opening day.

Mi Rey, an 8-year-old from Argentina who had been trained by O'Neill since last winter, fractured a foreleg beyond repair. His rider, defending Del Mar champion Rafael Bejarano, was kicked by a trailing horse and suffered significant facial fractures. As for the fans, many just taking their seats after insufferable traffic and admission gate delays, they could not have missed the tragedy, which took place squarely in front of the teeming grandstand, complete with green screen, stretchers, and ambulances.

No one attends the races expecting to experience the violent death of a racehorse and severe injury to a rider, just as no sane Nascar fan buys his ticket to Talladega hoping to witness a wreck. The difference, though, is in the conditioning. Car crashes have been rendered as victimless acrobatics in movies, video games, and on TV. A whole lot of us even have been involved in few and walked away. Horses, on the other hand, represent grace, beauty, and the edgy domestication of a wild breed. Thoroughbreds are here because man chooses to produce them and then pay for the privilege of watching them perform. When they are hurt, it is as if an understood contract has been breached.

Bejarano, 27, fractured two vertebrae in March 2008 at Santa Anita when his horse, Parisian Art, suffered some type of cardiac arrest. Like Mi Rey, Parisian Art was trained by O'Neill.

"I remember the first thing out of Rafael's mouth when I saw him at the hospital that night," O'Neill recalled. "He was concerned about the horse. This time, I'm sure he knew. He didn't need to ask.

"He looked like someone who had gone 12 rounds with a very large man," O'Neill went on. "The left side of his face was badly swollen, and his left eye was shut. But he was in good spirits. We were joking about his male modeling career being on hold. When I said how it's been O'Neill horses these two times he's been laid up, he said the thought hadn't dawned on him until a few minutes before. It was, he said, just a part of the game."

Tired of hearing that line? Get used to it, because it is true. If equine fatalities were going to kill horse racing, racetracks would have been shopping malls a long time ago. The people who run racing - owners, breeders, trainers, and track operators - have an obligation to minimize the inevitable damage. How well they do that job - through veterinary regulations and inspections, strict licensing requirements, safe surfaces, and a durable animal - ultimately will determine at what level of public acceptance horse racing will continue to exist.

O'Neill described Mi Rey as clean-legged, and "a pleasure to be around," which is a appropriate, since it's best to speak well of the dead. An officially mandated autopsy always follows a racing fatality in California, with data added to the research pile.

The fact remains that low-level claiming horses are the foot soldiers of the game, and there will be casualties. It is up to enlightened and compassionate generals to spend those lives wisely.

Mi Rey's role was to fill a starting berth in a race that would generate a healthy chunk of parimutuel action on a very big day in terms of potential handle. A total of $13.1 million came in from all betting sources Wednesday, and Mi Rey was involved in exactas, trifectas, superfectas, quinellas, doubles, pick threes, and the place pick all, in addition to straight, place, and show pools. It is hard to come up with an exact amount his presence contributed to the bounty - he went off at 7-1 - but it can be said without hesitation that he more than paid his way. As it was, Mi Rey earned the minimum $400 participation fee.

"It was starting out to be such a great day, then the wheels came off," O'Neill said with a sigh. "I hate being the name behind the incident, and more so that it happened at all.

"In a weird way, we're not talking about a sport," O'Neill added. "It's real life. Like losing Nacho. It's the fact that Mi Rey was here a few days ago and doing great, and all of a sudden he's gone."