On this early Sunday afternoon, along a narrow path of dirt over which Man o' War and Secretariat had once swept in flight to historic victories in the Preakness Stakes, a dainty chestnut filly named So Sly stood frozen in her final autumn light, nervously balancing herself on three legs.
Her 20-year-old groom, Mike Murphy, looked at her for a moment and averted his eyes, his face ashen. He had just run the 700 yards from where he'd been watching the race, in front of the Pimlico grandstand, and he was still carrying the halter and the lead shank with which he had led her to the races that day.
"Oh, jeez," he said.
Murphy knew what had to be done. The distal end of the filly's cannon bone in her left foreleg, just above the ankle, had snapped in half, and the shaft of it was white and bare and jutting, like a peg leg, from a thin brown stocking of skin. Below it the hoof and the lower pastern and ankle bones hung loosely on the ground, tethered to the leg by a single swath of hide and ligament. It was 1:38 p.m. on Oct. 3, and only the bleeding had stopped. Now a fate and a world not of the filly's making was closing in around her—the horse ambulance waiting there to take her away, the pinched expressions of the groom and the pony girl, and the track veterinarian moving toward her with his needles. Five minutes earlier, in the second race at Pimlico, a 1[1/16]-mile claiming event for cheap fillies and mares worth $8,000-$8,500, So Sly and jockey Frank Douglas were racing sixth in a field of nine, moving three wide as they charged around the far turn. Russian Vixon was running right next to her when suddenly Freddy Castillo, Russian Vixon's jockey, heard the sound that riders have come to know and fear as no other.
"The crack of a baseball off a wooden bat," as Castillo puts it.
Half-ton racehorses, traveling at 36 miles per hour, strike the ground with splintering force, exerting a 12,000-pound load on the cannon bone alone, and in that instant, on this day, the one in So Sly's left leg blew violently apart. The scene that followed looked like something out of Pickett's Charge. Caving left, So Sly pitched Douglas forward, in somersaults, and on her way down she chop-blocked Russian Vixon, sending her sprawling. Castillo tumbled into the dirt. "She snapped her leg off," Castillo says. "It all happened so quick."
Falling left, Russian Vixon slammed into the horse on the rail, Kels Clever Choice, who crashed to the earth and catapulted her jockey, Joe Rocco, through the air. Rocco had taken a terrible spill two weeks before when a horse had broken down beneath him on the turf course and a passing horse had kicked him in the head. Now as he lay on the dirt he was thinking, Not again. For an instant there were bodies everywhere. And barely had the other horses hit the wire when one of the oldest and most poignant of racetrack rituals began to be played out near the ⅜ pole.
None of the jockeys was seriously hurt. The two inside horses scrambled to their feet and bounded away. Then there was So Sly. She managed to get up but went down, then rose and hobbled in circles, leg dangling, until the pony girl and the ambulance rushed to her side. Jamie Richardson, an ambulance worker, took the reins of her bridle in his left hand and pushed gently against the horse's neck, trying to steady her on three legs. "Whoa now," Richardson said. "Whoa...."
Murphy stepped forward and kissed her on the nose. The filly dropped her head. Then Murphy turned and walked up the racetrack, holding the halter and shank. He did not want to sec what was coming now. Nothing at a racetrack stirs chaos and confusion like a loose, catastrophically injured horse—they are often in a state of panic—and by the time Dr. David Zipf, the track veterinarian, arrived on the scene, Richardson had spent several anxious minutes trying to keep the filly steady and calm. As Zipf climbed from his car, Richardson yelled, "You got a radio? I've been standing here with her like this for five minutes!"
"They were saying all the horses were up and running around," Zipf said. "I don't know...."