Wake At Noon’s Death a Sad Wake-Up Call
For thoroughbred aficionados, the news out of Lexington, Ky., this week wasn’t particularly enlightening. But it was better than the news out of Toronto, where an aging champion paid the ultimate price for one man’s egregious error.
At the third annual Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, held at the historic Keeneland Racecourse, attendees learned that the incidence of racehorse fatalities are not significantly different for (a) horses running on dirt, synthetic or turf racing surfaces, (b) horses carrying more weight, or running at different distances, or (c) horses running on wet or otherwise “off” tracks.
The report, known as the Equine Injury Database and based on a year’s worth of data from 378,864 total starts at 73 racetracks, essentially confirmed what most of us already know: The major determiner in racehorse fatalities is the care they receive from their humans.
At Woodbine Racecourse last Tuesday, 13-year-old Wake At Noon took to the training track in the early morning hours for his first recorded workout in almost three years. Canada’s Horse of the Year in 2002 never made it back to the barn. At the quarter pole, he broke a foreleg and fell. Struggling to stand, he broke the other leg. He was euthanized on the track.
Woodbine Racecourse officials want to know how Wake At Noon was allowed on the grounds in the first place. The track has a policy that does not allow any horse older than 10 that has not won a race in the previous year to be stabled at the track.
Bred and owned by Bruno Schickedanz, a home builder in Ontario, Wake At Noon retired to stud in 2004 with lifetime earnings of more than $1.6 million. He was brought back to race later that year and continued to race through 2005. He ran three times in 2006 and three more times in 2007 before retiring for good ... presumably.
Schickedanz told the Toronto Star he decided to bring Wake At Noon back to the races this year because he was “shooting blanks” in the breeding shed (for the record, Wake At Noon did sire 10 registered foals) and was “acting like a 3-year-old” at Shickedanz’s farm, Select Stud.
It wasn’t the first time the owner has chosen poorly.
Victoriously Bold was one of the most popular horses to compete in Canada in the 1990s, a stakes winner with a devastating turn of foot who won 29 races in 105 starts for 12 different trainers and six different owners. By the mid-1990s, he had plummeted to the low-level claiming ranks.
After a win at Fort Erie on May 5, 1995, he was claimed by a man who had owned him in his stakes-winning days — Bruno Schickedanz, who made the grand gesture of calling an impromptu press conference after the race and telling local media that the horse he called “Vito” would now be retired. Woodbine even threw a party for Vito, complete with a basket of carrots and a monogrammed blanket.
A year later, Victoriously Bold was back. He won a $16,000 claiming race at Woodbine, then Schickedanz lost him the following year in an $8,000 claimer. Victoriously Bold raced for two more years and won his last race, a $5,000 claimer, on April 17, 1999. He finished on three legs and was ultimately put down.
Schickedanz was not Vito’s last owner, but he did own him six times. And one wonders if whatever impetus prompted Schickedanz to pull Vito out of his retirement pasture was also at play in his decision to return 13-year-old Wake At Noon to the races.
Certainly, an owner is free to run a horse wherever he or she deems appropriate, within the rules. But returning a horse to racing after a stint at stud rarely results in a successful outcome.
Black Gold, the 1924 Kentucky Derby winner, was retired to stud at 3 but returned to racing at 6 when he was deemed unfertile. On Jan. 18, 1928, he broke his left front leg in a race at the New Orleans Fairgrounds. He was put down on the track and buried in the infield.
George Washington, one of Great Britain’s top 3-year-olds of 2006, was retired at the end of that season but brought back to racing the following year after impregnating only one mare. Shipped to the U.S. for the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park, the colt shattered his right front ankle at the top of the stretch and was immediately put down.
George Washington, ironically, was bred by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, the owner/breeders of ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.
Of course, if horses were barred from racing once they were officially retired, Seabiscuit would not have returned to win the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, and Da Hoss would never have won his second Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1998, two years after he won his first one.
More common is the aborted comeback attempt, as was the case with John Henry (retired in 1985, returned to training the following year) and Lava Man (retired in 2008, returned to racing in late 2009).
John Henry’s trainer, Ron McAnally, was able to persuade owner Sam Rubin not to enter the gelding in a race. Lava Man finished last in his lone comeback race before retiring to become trainer Doug O’Neill’s stable pony.
Whether or not a penalty is in the offing for Shickedanz is yet to be determined. If he is found to have violated any statute, vis-à-vis Wake At Noon’s presence at the track, then Woodbine could deny him entry and refuse to allow his horses to race.
Penn National Racecourse did just that to Eclipse Award winning owner Michael Gill, whose horses won 370 races and earned $6.7 million last year. In February, after the Gill-owned Laughing Moon broke down at the finish line in a six-furlong race and caused a chain reaction spill, 25 Penn National jockeys refused to ride in races against his horses. Ten Gill-owned horses had broken down on the track in a 13-month period.
Gill, who has led the nation in wins and earnings four times, has never been shy about stating his ambition to become the leading owner in the sport. Nor has he been secretive about his modus operandi — claim low, claim often and unload them before they become a liability.
“If Jesus puts his horse in too low, I’m claiming him,” Gill once said.
Tracks in Delaware, Florida, and New York have banned Gill from running horses amid speculation his horses received performance enhancing drugs. In 1995, New Hampshire racing officials banned Gill for three years after a horse he was training tested positive for the bronchodilator clenbuterol and a search of his Rockingham Park barn turned up injectible drugs and syringes. In 2001, one of his Suffolk Downs runners tested positive for the stimulant benzylpiperazine.
Shickedanz was planning to send Wake At Noon to Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, which humorist Joe Bob Briggs once referred to as “the graveyard of broken-down nags.”
“The horse (Wake At Noon) was my friend,” Schickedanz told the Toronto Star. “I would pat him every day. But in racing, unfortunately, these things happen.”
Perhaps they shouldn’t happen as often. And giving them cute nicknames or patting them on the nose every day doesn’t make it any more acceptable. At least Michael Gill is honest about it.
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