In a devastating moment of déjà vu at the Potomac Hunt Races on Sunday, a stunned crowd of several thousand watched a bay gelding named American Diplomat take a tragic fall, struggle up and stand in the same position, hind leg curled under him in pain, just as Barbaro stood during the Preakness at Pimlico.
One day after the Kentucky Derby winner shattered his right leg on national television, crowds at the 54th annual races in Poolesville were shocked by the deaths of two horses in unrelated accidents. The tragedies, which happened over two different hurdles in the same race, were witnessed by many and put a pall over the day.
In spite of the beautiful setting at Gogo and Austin Kiplinger’s farm where the Potomac Hunt Races take place, gloom rolled in with the clouds after the two horses died. American Diplomat, who sustained a similar injury to that of Barbaro, had to be euthanized on the spot. The other, named Imprinted, fell at a hurdle and never got up. In all, four horses went down, but two survived their falls, one gamely finishing the race without its rider.
“We haven’t had a fatal accident in 30 years of this race,” said Skip Crawford, master of the Potomac Hunt. “You can do everything possible to make the course safe, but unfortunately, this was something that no one can explain. People were devastated.”
THE DAY STARTED out sunny and satisfying at Bitter Sweet Field on Partnership Road. Crowds arrived carrying picnic baskets and children, while tailgate parties welcomed guests with bountiful displays of food and drink. By the third race, the Alice Keech Perpetual Plate Maiden Hurdle Race, merriment was in full swing for the first significant meet of the day. (A maiden race is for horses who have not won a hurdle race before.) The two previous races featured ponies and a relay.
While fans draped themselves on the rails and drank thirstily in the sun, the horses rounded the course in this two-mile race. At the head of the stretch, American Diplomat, a 4-year-old thoroughbred owned by Anita Bailey, started for the jump, went over and pitched to the ground. As he struggled to get up, his jockey, Jess Murphy, who was thrown but unhurt, raced back to his side. “The jockey did everything he was supposed to do,” said Rusty Morgan of Rockville, an eyewitness. “He grabbed him by the neck and kept him down so that he couldn’t stand on his leg.” The crowd gasped and waited.
When the attending vet, Dr. Richard Forfa of the Monocacy Equine Veterinary Associates in Beallsville, Maryland, reached American Diplomat he immediately saw that the horse had a life-threatening injury.
“He probably landed wrong when he hit the ground, causing a torque injury,” he said. “His one leg was fractured at the cannon bone and it broke the skin so that the bone had grass on it.” American Diplomat’s future ended there on the field in the third race.
IN THE CASE OF Barbaro, who did not have an open break, there was a chance for recovery. “It is rare to get a fracture like [Barbaro’s] and not have the skin broken,” Forfa said. A fracture usually becomes an open break because the horse continues to step on it. “Barbaro was smart,” said Forfa, “He protected himself by running on three legs and the jockey was smart for pulling him up.” Because of the way American Diplomat fell and the resulting exposure of his injury to dirt and grass, Forfa said that the horse’s leg would most likely become infected during treatment.
During that same race, Crawford, who had his own horse in the race, waited at the steward’s stand for sight of Imprinted, owned by race steward Randy Rouse of Arlington, Va. The 5-year-old bay gelding never showed up.
“It all happened so fast and we were so devastated by what happened to American Diplomat, that we were stunned to hear from race officials that another horse was down,” Crawford said. “It was a terrible, sad day for everyone.”
Rouse, a Fairfax Hunt MFH, (Master of Fox Hounds) was also watching for his horse. He saw that the usually fast frontrunner was losing ground and coming up last in the field when Imprinted took his fatal jump four fences from home.
“I thought something was wrong because I saw him go into the jump and hardly take off and he is a beautiful jumper,” said Rouse. Imprinted went over the jump, but it quickly became a bad spill and he hit the ground head first and never moved. There was talk of a broken neck, but Rouse indicated that, from his observations, it could also have been an aneurysm.
Participants in the Potomac Hunt Races are usually amateur riders with homebred (meaning they are bred and raised by the owner) horses that they also use for foxhunting, thus the name “hunt races.” Often they are cherished, like Imprinted, who belonged to Rouse’s wife Michele. She was devastated, he said. Imprinted was out of her favorite mares, called The Printer, who was “timber horse of the year” 20 years ago, said Rouse. “Most of her children (foals) had the name “Print” in it. We even had Unprintable,” he said. In fact, it was a difficult day for Rouse. Another of his horses, Edited, jumped early at a hurdle and unseated his rider, Ellen Horner. Both were unhurt.
HORSES PUT tremendous pressure on their legs and at each stride an individual leg is carrying all his weight and energy, said Norman Fraley, the race steward at the event. “In my opinion, the ground was firm and the horses were going full bore,” he said. “If the ground is soft they can’t get going as fast and the pace is slower.” Fraley, who officiates at 98 percent of the races, said that today’s rules are strict enough so that jockeys ride better, have better equipment and the races are safer so that multiple accidents like Sunday’s are unusual.
In hurdle racing it is not unusual to have one or two horses and riders take a tumble without injuries, but the two fatalities were a shock to many onlookers.
“It was very upsetting to me,” said Janet Nash, a spectator from Vienna, Va. who photographed the accident involving American Diplomat. “I had no idea that so many could get hurt in one race, but I am not a horse person.” She and her husband left after the accident.
For two horses to fatally injure themselves, it was exceedingly unusual, according to both Crawford and Forfa.
“You can blame it on a bad day, or the horse had problems at the start, or a fast, hard footing which was dry gave them more speed than usual. We will never really know,” said Forfa.
A human athlete with a serious fracture can be put in traction and on bed rest. But for a horse, the treatment is not so straightforward. Horses cannot get off a leg that is injured by lying down because their digestive system and organs would malfunction. They need to stand and move. Another complication, the pressure of extra weight when a horse favors a good leg may cause laminitis and result in founder, also potentially fatal, not to mention the most serious outcome of an open break: infection.
ATHLETIC EVENTS CAN be risky. A football or basketball player making a misstep or a skier catching an edge may end up in a career-ending or life-threatening accident. American Diplomat and Imprinted were athletes in an athletic competition.
“People read stories or see accidents in person, like this weekend’s, or see Barbaro’s on TV and ask why does it happen,” said Forfa. “It can happen at any time.” An owner may turn a horse out to pasture and discover later that the horse shows up with a fractured leg. He could have been running with other horses and turned too quickly or slipped.
“They are so fragile,” said Rouse. “When you get 1100 or 1200 pounds hitting the ground on those legs, a misstep can be disastrous.”
Leg injuries in horses are a common ailment and most are not life threatening, but a serious compound fracture is a different matter and a challenge, both financially and medically, to owners and veterinarians trying to save the animal. “In the case of American Diplomat, we never got to the economics of it because the prognosis was so poor,” said Forfa. “Because of the extreme damage to the two main blood vessels to the foot, there was nothing we could do. … But I don’t want people to think that we euthanize horses unnecessarily. These injuries actually happen less than they used to in earlier years because we have better diagnostic tools that can pick up injuries before they happen so we can take better care of our horses now.”