Editors Note: We’re wrapping up the 23rd year of The Special with some moments from the meet. You can find the complete editions from 2023 here.
The Worst Test: Pretty Mischievous wins tragic renewal of Grade 1 Test. By Sean Clancy. August 6 edition.
It made you turn away.
Strides before the wire in the Grade 1 Test Saturday afternoon at Saratoga, the undefeated Maple Leaf Mel had put away six rivals in the 3-year-old filly stakes, the feel-good story of all feel-good stories was about to crescendo when she bobbled, stumbled and fell strides before the wire. Spectators gasped that terrible gasp, the one heard so rarely, but so deeply.
It was over. Her race. Her life.
Maple Leaf Mel suffered a catastrophic fracture to her right front leg and was euthanized.
Pretty Mischievous inherited the win. Today’s Bayakoa. Today’s Foolish Pleasure.
The Godolphin team declined a winner’s circle photo, canceled a trophy presentation. There was nothing to celebrate, nothing to immortalize. Pretty Mischievous cantered back and stood on the track, a double-play toss from where Maple Leaf Mel was taking her final breaths behind a wavering brown screen. Every race has a winner, and every race has a loser, this one had nothing but the latter.
Jockey Tyler Gaffalione pulled off his tack in an empty spot in front of the winner’s circle, trainer Brendan Walsh stared into oblivion, the now three-time Grade 1 stakes winning filly walked home. At least she was walking home.
Walsh and Gaffalione walked through the stunned clubhouse crowd toward the jocks’ room, the quietest Grade 1 aftermath. Ever.
“I don’t know what to say. I don’t think words can describe it. It feels like nothing,” Walsh said. “I just feel terrible for them. For the filly. A champion like her, the way she ran. Nobody wants to win a race like that.”
Maple Leaf Mel had done it all, all the way. NFL great Bill Parcells had purchased her for $150,000 as a 2-year-old and named her after Melanie Giddings. The longtime assistant to trainer Jeremiah Englehart had ridden the long racetrack journey from Canada to Churchill Downs to New York. A daughter of Cross Traffic, Maple Leaf Mel won her first four starts for Englehart, blowing away New York-breds and winning the Grade 3 Miss Preakness at Pimlico in May.
When Giddings decided to go out on her own as a trainer, Parcells and Englehart didn’t hesitate, handing her her namesake. It was the chance of a lifetime. Giddings won her first and second races on a June afternoon at Presque Isle Downs. Two maiden claimers. Her third win came 17 days later when Maple Leaf Mel dusted seven rivals with another front-running score in the Grade 3 Victory Ride at Belmont Park. This was going to be Giddings’ fourth win. In a Grade 1. At Saratoga.
What a story. And, oh yeah, Giddings was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian and endocervical cancer in 2020. After surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, she kicked it into remission.
In a time when good stories seem harder and harder to come by, this was one for the ages.
“If I didn’t win the race, I genuinely wanted her to win it,” Walsh said. “She’s been around Churchill for years and I know what she’s been through. Just brutal.”
Valet Simon Harris uttered the same word as he walked back to the jocks’ room.
“The worst I’ve ever seen,” Harris said. “Brutal. Just brutal.”
Walsh walked behind the grandstand, through a still-stunned crowd, to his golf cart and headed back to the test barn. The 50-year-old Irishman searched for a reason, an answer, but knew they weren’t coming.
“You wonder sometimes,” Walsh said. “I cannot believe. I cannot believe it.”
Slowing to a stop at the edge of the test barn, Walsh saw his assistant, Charlie Lynch. They looked at each other for a moment, the shared disbelief of a game gone wrong.
“Is she all right, yeah?” Walsh asked Lynch.
“Yeah, she’s not tired,” Walsh said.
On the wash pad, Pretty Mischievous held her head high and stared across the perpendicular back of runner-up Clearly Unhinged.
“Her ears pricked, look at her,” Walsh said. “Just a little bit quick for her. I know we won’t be going sprinting again. Her class got her back up there.”
Got her back to what was meant to be a valiant second behind a gallant winner. Maple Leaf Mel and Joel Rosario had blitzed through a quarter-mile in :22.28, a half in :44.58 and three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.34. Pretty Mischievous stayed as close as she could but was way back in sixth turning for home. The Kentucky Oaks and Acorn winner plugged on through the stretch, widest of all and had picked up the pieces to be second.
“I’m getting to the wire, I’m happy my filly ran second,” Gaffalione said. “I’m thrilled for the people. Mel, she’s a nice girl. Coach Parcells, it would have been his first Grade 1. Two more strides. Just sad.”
Pretty Mischievous was no match for the winner. But in the end, the official winner by a head over Clearly Unhinged and Munny’s Gold.
“At the top, I didn’t think we were getting anything,” Lynch said.
“She’s tough,” Walsh said.
The results-based conversation didn’t last long.
“Can you believe that?” Walsh said. “You’d rather just get beat. For that to happen…”
“Awful,” Lynch said.
Trainer Dave Duggan walked around the back of the test barn and stopped at Walsh’s golf cart.
“Congrats, I suppose,” Duggan said.
“I know one thing. I’ll never win a Grade 1 again and feel as ——- bad,” Walsh said. “It’s cruel. I’ve never seen anything like it. You couldn’t make it up. That poor girl. To go through what she’s gone through.”
Duggan shook his head.
“What racing wants and what racing needs, this ain’t it,” Duggan said. “This is a personal thing on a lot of levels.”
Walsh stared at Pretty Mischievous, innocently oblivious to her trainer’s pain, her sport’s suffering.
“At the end of the day, there’s a lot to be said for just when they come back safe,” Walsh said. “If something ever happened to her . . . I think I’d walk out the gate.”
Walsh turned the wheel of his golf cart and headed back to the track. He had one in the last or he would have gone out the gate. Rolling down the horse path on the outside rail near the quarter pole, Walsh passed trainer Mertkan Kantarmaci, who shares Barn 69 on the Oklahoma with Giddings.
“I don’t know what to say, I want to congratulate you,” Kantarmaci said. “It’s heartbroken. It’s heartbroken.”
“I would have rather finish second and have that filly gallop out,” Walsh said.
Walsh passed hotwalker John Wayne Eastwood standing under the back stairwell at the far end of the grandstand.
“Tough game,” he said. “It’s a good game but sometimes it’s tough.”
It had never been tougher.
“Why does it have to happen to someone like that? It’s bad for it to happen to anyone but to her…” Walsh said.
Ricardo Santana Jr. pushed a baby stroller, three kids in and around it, past the Carousel.
“So sad, man,” the jockey said. “So sad.”
Walsh parked his golf cart and walked down a nearly empty path, past the food trucks and the Montauk beer stand, nobody was buying. Walsh’s phone was silent, no congratulatory texts, no racehorse emojis.
“I have not gotten one message. Not from a member of my staff. Nothing,” Walsh said. “Nobody feels anything.”
Walsh walked slowly, head down, still shaking in disbelief.
“It’s knocked the life out of the place. I came down here before, the place was buzzing, you could barely walk down here,” Walsh said. “You wouldn’t know what to think, would you? Sometimes it’ll make you hate it yourself.”
The field for the Saratoga Derby launched from the gate, the bell breaking the pall, a few diehard bettors gathered around the TV. One or two yelled out a number.
“What race is this?” Walsh asked.
He barely knew. Certainly, didn’t care.
Walsh walked up the stairs of the clubhouse, the second saddest trainer on the grounds.
Three hours later in the fading light of an awful day, Pretty Mischievous pushed a sweet-feed mix around a full feed tub in the front corner of her stall. Uninterested, she walked to the back of her stall and pulled a mouthful of hay from her rubber manger in the corner, stomped on it. She walked to the front of her stall and rested her head into the shoulder of a forlorn visitor.
Three barns and 167 steps from the Test winner, the straw was bedded deep and fluffed high in the fourth stall to the end. A Jolly Ball hung limply from a screw eye. Two rubber runners and a webbing were snapped in place across the stall. A turned-over feed tub hung from a post. A hoof pick, a brush, a pair of rundown patches laid on a wooden shelf. A pair of ice boots waited in a bucket; the ice melted in a pool at the bottom. The water still cold.
An empty stall. A lost star. A shattered dream.