Following Decorated My Life’s catastrophic injury in Saturday’s Sweet Life S. at Santa Anita, a 15-second video clip shared on social media that appears to show the 3-year-old filly slightly off on her right-front as she jogged to the start of the race has spurred talk of modification to the layers of pre-race veterinary scrutiny for horses that run on the track’s downhill turf course.
A regulatory veterinarian is present to watch horses warm up on the level before they head up the hill—on which the Sweet Life S. was run—and then again when they get to the gate.
According to California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) equine medical director, Jeff Blea, the video appears to be from when Decorated My Life negotiated the incline on the way to post—a stage when a regulatory veterinarian can scrutinize individual horses on a TV monitor but not from the track itself.
“I spoke with the track vet and we’re thinking of making a couple modifications, especially for horses that are warming up on the turf course—and the downhill turf course in particular—so maybe we can get an eye on these horses as they’re going up the hill, not just on a flat surface,” said Blea, who followed-up the interview in an email with a study showing how even slight slopes can affect lameness exams in horses.
According to Blea, Decorated My Life passed multiple layers of veterinary oversight before Saturday’s race, including an exam by the attending veterinarian prior to entry, another exam the morning of the race, along with regulatory scrutiny in the paddock, while warming up and behind the gate.
“She was evaluated when she got to the gate and there was no lameness present,” said Blea, about the daughter of Mehmas (Ire), trained by Simon Callaghan.
All horses entered to race must also pass the muster of a multi-person review panel who assess a horse’s potential for catastrophic injury. “I was on this panel, and this horse did not present any what we consider at-risk factors,” he said.
But Blea doesn’t deny the video appears to show Decorated My Life presents slight lameness in the video, posted on YouTube by Horseracingwrongs.
“What I saw is visual right front inconsistency or lameness,” said Blea, of the video. “It’s a short window. It’s there. You can’t argue that. You can’t deny that. Those are the facts.”
Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for 1/ST racing, said that “day-in, day-out” there are at minimum two regulatory veterinarians watching the horses on the track on race-day.
“Both vets go to the paddock. One vet then goes in the truck, follows the field. But because we realize that was a potential blind-spot, we had a camera system in the downstairs—below the winner’s circle—that allows them to follow horses [on TV monitors]. But then, they could have been following a different horse when the horse was doing what is on this video. They could have been looking at a different view, a different angle,” said Benson.
Decorated My Life’s jockey, Joe Bravo, was taken to hospital following the incident, and took off his mounts the following day as a precautionary measure.
“You’re talking about a jockey who’s not aggressive—by that, I mean he’s not going to push a horse that he’s not comfortable on,” said Benson. “If he didn’t feel it and we didn’t see in that moment what was going on—or what looked to be going on—it’s very challenging to do better.”
Racing on the downhill turf course was temporarily halted in the spring of 2019, when Arms Runner suffered a catastrophic breakdown in the GIII San Simeon S. When asked if the track was considering another such moratorium, Benson pointed out that Decorated My Life was the first such injury on the course after four injury-free meets. The track also had no race-day main track fatalities last year.
“We have very strict protocols about which horses and which jockeys are allowed to go down the downhill,” said Benson. “We definitely do a good job of trying to remind the jockeys of the challenges of riding down the downhill, and that’s something [ex-jockey] Aaron Gryder does very well.”
As happens with every horse that suffers a catastrophic injury in California, Decorated My Life will undergo a necropsy examination—this time at a UC Davis-affiliated facility in San Bernardino.
The CHRB will also conduct a mandatory mortality review into the incident, which includes the pulling of the horse’s veterinary records and regulatory exam history, along with interviews with the attending veterinarians and other potentially involved parties.
“And then finally, the review is generally with the trainer,” said Blea. “We’re taking this very seriously. One fatality is one too many. Period.”
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