Horse Racing and Dumb Birds

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Horse Racing and Dumb Birds
Birds can be cute and cuddly but can also be bothersome demons when encountered on the racetrack. Here are a few tales where the birds should've found another place to loiter for the day. 

On May 6, 2023, jockey Chantal Sutherland suffered a horrific shoulder injury when she was thrown from her mount after her horse got spooked by two geese on the Gulfstream turf course. Sutherland rode Haruki to a fourth-place finish in the English Channel Stakes but during the gallop out, the gelding saw two geese walking and flipping their wings nearby and pitched her to the canvas. "He galloped out pretty strong, so I said, 'I'll just let him gallop out,"' Sutherland said. "Just around the seven-eight pole, the geese were in the middle of the track, walking across the turf. I grabbed a hold of the horse to pull on him and slow him down but then he saw the geese flapping their wings. He totally put the brakes on and that made me slingshot out of the saddle." 

With the other horses galloping out and approaching, she scampered under the rail for cover. When she got up, she thought she was okay but got an unpleasant surprise when she looked towards the ground. 

"I looked down at my arm and it was down by my knee just dangling," Sutherland said. 

The humorous bone had broken clean off the shoulder. Major surgery was required to insert screws and repair the arm. 

Initial estimates had Chantel back in the saddle in 3 months but as of this writing she hasn't returned and her future is uncertain.

"I'm not getting any better right now," Sutherland told the Thoroughbred Daily News in January. "My arm needs a lot more work. I dream of racing again but I don't know." 

On March 30, 2005, at Sandown Racecourse in Australia, thousands of seagulls left their warm and cozy sanctuary by the track's infield lake to secure a spot in the stretch, perhaps to get a good viewing of the upcoming feature race of the day, the Goldenway Handicap. 

The flock coated the track so densely, that the birds looked like a giant white flapping blanket on the course. When the horses turned for home the birds must have been caught napping, as they all just stood there and braced for impact. Five horses that hit the flock went down in a heap and lost their pilots. A sea of feathers, bird bodies, a few horses, and five humans littered the course during the pandemonium. 

Jockey Darren Gauci was riding Diamond Haily and received the surprise of his life in the lane. 

"I was back in the field a little bit and thought I was going okay and then I looked up and honestly all I could see was white. I couldn't even see the riders on the horses in front of me. They were like little black dots, darting everywhere. You didn't know where you were going. I didn't even know I was off my horse until I hit the deck." 

The four other riders who went down in the noisy sea of birds weren't seriously injured, but the group had some injuries. 

Jockey Brady Cross suffered a broken arm while Darren Gauci received a few chipped teeth and a sore neck. Luke Nolan sprained a thumb, Chris Symons suffered a bruised shoulder, and Michael Gutherie returned with several large bruises. Jockey Sally Wynne, who encountered a seagull problem at a different track only a week before this incident, rated Sandown as the worst for problem seagulls. 

"I ran over one and he hit the horse in the chest. (Jockey) Eddie Caser was halfway up the straight and one landed on his legs. He sort of grabbed it by the neck and threw it away and still ended up winning." 

Elmatilla, at meaningless odds of 11/1, with Peter Mertens aboard, won the Goldenway by open lengths but due to the wrath of the seagulls, the race was declared a "no-contest," and all bets were refunded. 

The winning jockey said the birds hit his horse so hard that they turned him sideways. Only 5 horses out of the eleven-horse field finished the race. 

There was another two-legged bird problem, as the Herald-Sun newspaper reported that police were summoned after one angry horse player stormed the steward's office to protest the no-contest ruling. Melbourne Racing Club Cheif Steward Des Gleeson described that day at the track as "bizarre and extraordinary." 

Some fifty varieties of birds are officially classified as seagulls and it seems somehow, someway, most of those mixtures eventually find their way to the racetrack. 

In 1992, at Randwick, a wayward seagull is thought to be responsible for the death of rider Noel Baker. His mount, Father Time went down in a heap after a seagull flew into him and the horse panicked. Baker died 11 days later from a head injury. 

In the summer of 1997, I witnessed bird madness on the racetrack when I took my wife and then seven-year-old son to Saratoga for a beautiful day of racing. Although it can be a very long day at the Spa, it turned out to be the perfect afternoon, at least until the finale. There was an extremely large concentration of birds hanging out in the stretch all day, mostly consisting of geese, ducks, and yes, seagulls, but there must've been at least another ten species of birds mixed in as well.

As a lifelong NY racetracker, I was no stranger to birds on the ovals but this seemed darkly different. You couldn't see any dirt at all on the track from the top of the lane to exactly the eighth pole and the birds got thicker as the day went on. 

My son had asked about the horses hitting the birds several times that day and I assured him it couldn't happen.

"They have something called natural flock instinct, son," I proudly stated. "Those birds can feel and see the horses coming from a mile away. They are in no danger, so stop it, relax, and enjoy the races." 

The last race finally went off and as the horses rounded the final turn, my son went into it again. 

"Those horses are gonna smash up all of those birdies," he screamed while pointing.

"For the tenth time, it's not gonna happen, son," I assured him. 

As the horses slammed into the birds at about 38 mph, the air was filled with feathers and screams. Jockeys and horses went off course and most riders lost their irons. One horse and jock were down and the ground was covered in several varieties of dead birds. It was at this exact moment, I knew I was not going to receive the Smartest Father of the Year award. I felt awful. The kid was crying as he looked down at the dead birds on the track apron and I went over to comfort him. I picked the feathers from his hair and dried his tears. I tried to explain the day's situation the best I could but I had given the kid bad information. I was hoping he was going to be okay and not scarred for life. I asked if he had any questions about the traumatic experience. 

He thought for a long minute and then his eyes got serious and I braced for the big fatherly question. 

"Can we bring home a dead pigeon and a seagull?" 

It was at that point, I knew he'd be okay. 

As we got to the car, he looked at me and said, "Birdies aren't any fun at the racetrack."

Author: Peter Monaco

Photo: Freepik

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