After giving three jockeys three legs up (leg ups?) before the Grade I Iroquois, I switched to reporter and tracked Jack Fisher, trainer of the three horses. We walked up the stone steps at Percy Warner Park, the ones my father climbed to watch Owhata Chief win back-to-back runnings of the 3-mile classic, the ones traversed by the great Midwest owners and trainers with names like Dudley, Brown and Sloan and later simply the great owners and trainers of our sport. We found a spot before the finish line, about halfway up the natural grandstand, the course laid out in front of us like a picnic blanket on a summer afternoon.
I sidled behind Fisher, leaned on a railing, my favorite spot of observation, this was the paddock chute with Allen Jerkens before the Prioress, the clubhouse post behind Shug McGaughey before the Travers, the big screen TV with Charlie LoPresti for all those gems thrown by Wise Dan at Saratoga.
With New Member, Footpad and Snap Decision, the overwhelming favorite, making up half the field, Fisher was the obvious and only choice to track for the story of the race. Far from loquacious, win or lose, this was the way to tell the tale, allow for observation of the observation to write it, quotes and interviews fill the gaps after that.
The field usually starts in front of the crowd, but this year, the race shortened, it began at the bottom of the hill. We waited in silence, the sun beaming down on a sweltering afternoon. A few imbibers shrieked and heckled, most turned to the big screen or down the hill to see the seventh and final race on the spring’s biggest day.
In the distance, starter Chris Daney dropped his flag and New Member hopped into the lead, Snap Decision found a sweet spot in the middle of the six-horse field, Footpad tracked him. They ripped around the turn and rolled onto the long backstretch, aiming at the line of hurdles. Through the binoculars, I could see a horse fall, as they came out from behind a tent, it took seconds before I knew it was Footpad. “Footpad fell, Jack.” Then the 9-year-old emerged, riderless, an awkward, an unbalanced gait along the outside hedge.
“He’s hurt, Jack.”
The race lost all its magic. Then and there. Numb, we watched parts of it, scanning back and forth to Footpad, his career, his life, perhaps, slipping away as Snap Decision shoveled on the coals to his burgeoning career, sauntering up the hill, in command, to give Graham Watters his first Grade 1 stakes score, to push his record to nine in a row, to stamp himself as the next great horse, perhaps, in the realm of a Good Night Shirt, a McDynamo, a Lonesome Glory.
But, it was all lost on us.
“That was the good, the bad and the ugly,” Fisher said trudging down the steps, the same steps we had just scaled, when the world was young.
I stood in the center of the course, watched an ebullient Graham Watters return on the best horse we’ve seen in years. They took some photos, the finishers were drenched in water thrown by volunteers, Tony Bentley announced the results, not that I heard him.
“Can I help?” I asked Fisher.
“Go see about Footpad.”
As much as I wanted to help, I didn’t want to do that. I slid into an awaiting golf cart. Watters’ fiancé Rosie Allen climbed in behind me. We were quiet, knowing, fearing, what we were about to see.
I cursed the day, the fortunes of a game gone wrong and then apologized to Allen for squelching Watters’ biggest moment. She understood and we talked about Watters, a grafter as they would say in Ireland, and his well-deserved fortune. For a moment, our minds drifted away from the direness.
The equine ambulance backed up to the end of Fisher’s shedrow, the one that looks out toward the Iroquois office and meadow. After gentle cajoling from assistant Sandra Webb, Footpad, winner of the Arkle, backed off the ramp, pivoted on his right front leg and stood, left leg hanging, his toe touching the ground but bearing no weight. Once a piston in the machine that scaled the Cheltenham hill, now a broken branch on an old oak. His veins bulged but didn’t pop, his eyes soft and kind, in confusion, the nipped-off right ear pricked, a toe rub on his left shoulder, ice bags draped over his withers and down his shoulders. Two bandages lay in the shedrow, a trophy in a box strewn along the side of the wall, a haynet ripped down and thrown under the railing, a veterinarian’s young son looking on worriedly. We offered Footpad water, turned a fan toward him, his mane blew in the breeze.
Tennessee Equine veterinarians and assistants huddled, canvassed, moved with definitiveness, an equine pit crew in crisis mode, setting up a laptop, the hand-held digital X-ray machine ready as plates were positioned. Everybody had a job.
“Start with the knee.”
Then we wait for the image to appear.
The vets throw out words, directions, that only they understand.
“Maybe he slabbed if off the front.”
“Try that view.”
Nothing in the knee.
Down to the fetlock. Up to the elbow. Farther up to the shoulder.
Each view taken and then waited upon, seconds ticking before flashing on the screen, then always a moment of hesitation, then a moment of understanding and then another direction. There was no small talk, no banter, just vets doing their jobs with professionalism and aplomb as X-rays of each joint come and go like flash cards in a math study group.
Maybe a nerve…
Owner Sonny Via arrived, stood outside in the grass, arms folded, the memories of Good Night Shirt and other good days in this cauldron long gone, a sobering game at its drying-out worst.
Vets asked if anybody had seen the fall. None of us had, well, other than from a thousand miles away in the heat of battle.
A vet tech arrived and quietly said she had videoed the fall, she showed her phone and, yeah, there it was in slow motion, frame by shuddering frame.. A shuddering mistake, stabbing his left leg into the unforgiving hurdle, rolling, twisting, run over by Bedrock. Brutal.
I’ve read enough X-rays to know when it’s bad and none of them offered that stone-cold hammer blow. Without any defined fractures flashing across the laptop screen, the mood changed ever so slightly. A tinge of optimism in a stew of restlessness and resignation.
Horsemen and veterinarians conferred and hatched a plan for the night, the morning. Nobody dared to think about anything past that. As for me, I slid away, throwing a sweat-soaked sport coat over my shoulder and walked off, wishing and hoping for a miracle.
• As of Sunday afternoon, Footpad had swelling and pain in the left carpal canal but was resting comfortably, awaiting further diagnosis at Tennessee Equine Hospital in Thompson’s Station, Tenn.