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Maple Leaf Mel and the long arc of a horse-racing tragedy

In late afternoon on the first Saturday in August, 39-year-old thoroughbred horse trainer Melanie Giddings was alone in the winner’s circle at Saratoga Race Course in Upstate New York. There were almost 44,000 spectators in attendance, on the kind of summer day when Saratoga is a time machine and the sport of racing is not just alive but thriving. There is a buzz on days like this. Nevertheless, Giddings was alone, in a bubble of her own design, the way she likes it when one of her horses is running and she experiences all of it inside her head and her gut.

On this day, that horse was Maple Leaf Mel, an undefeated, grey 3-year-old filly running in the seven-furlong Test Stakes, Saratoga’s premier sprint for fillies her age. Maple Leaf Mel had come into Giddings’ life in the spring of 2022. She was purchased at a sale in Maryland as an unraced 2-year-old for $150,000 by trainer Jeremiah Englehart for Hall of Fame former NFL coach Bill Parcells, who has owned and raced thoroughbreds for more than a decade. Englehart, 44, suggested they name the filly after his top assistant, Giddings, who is Canadian, and who had undergone treatment for Stage 4 endocervical and ovarian cancer in 2020 and was still fighting her way back to health. Parcells signed off on it.

Giddings watched the filly’s arrival at Saratoga a few weeks later; Parcells had sent her a photo from the sale and Giddings was smitten but seeing Mel in the flesh floored her. “I can still see her walking off the van the day she got [to Saratoga],” says Giddings. “Just watching her walk from the van to the barn, I was like, holy sh*t.” Why? “She had a boy body on her… built nice and thick. And her hind end looked so powerful. But she also had this real feminine face. So yeah. Holy sh*t.” Maple Leaf Mel was explosively fast from the start. “Not a run-off horse,” says Giddings, “but quick, and she liked the front.” Indeed: She would never in her life be passed by another horse. At least, not while upright.

Maple Leaf Mel won two races in the summer of 2022, and then was given several months off to mature and to rest a sore left shin. She returned as a 3-year-old last March and won at Aqueduct and then in the Miss Preakness Stakes on May 19 – Preakness Day at Pimlico – a victory that would be eclipsed by other events on that day, and an ongoing narrative she would later join, tragically. But she was four-and-oh, and the racing world had noticed. Concurrently, Giddings had begun training on her own, but remained Mel’s de facto trainer with Englehart. Filly and trainer shared a heartbeat; after Mel shipped home to Saratoga from Pimlico, Giddings came to the barn and when Mel saw Giddings round a corner into view, she began wailing and leaping in her stall. Giddings ran over. “I said ‘Hey girl, did you think I was going to leave you or something?’ She always looked at me like I looked at her.”

In June, Parcells formally made Giddings Maple Leaf Mel’s trainer of record, a blow for Englehart, but one that he supported. “She was the best horse I ever trained,” says Englehart. “And I knew she was going to be Maple Leaf Mel no matter who trained her.” On July 8, Mel ran for the first time in Giddings’ name, and won the Victory Ride Stakes at Belmont Park. Giddings dissolved in tears while watching, almost as if stricken. “I was so stressed out having her in my name,” says Giddings. “I felt like it was a bad omen. And she won, and I just felt relieved, like thank God this day is over.” Maple Leaf Mel was pointed to Saratoga, with plans beyond.

Mel went off at 2-1 odds in the Test, second choice behind Pretty Mischievous, an accomplished filly who had won both the Kentucky Oaks and Acorn Stakes and was made the narrow 9-5 favorite. But the seven-furlong distance was a potential equalizing factor, because Mel was likely the faster sprinter. She did her thing, breaking from the outside post and into the lead, down the backstretch in 22.28 seconds for a quarter mile and 44.58 seconds for a half, solid fractions. Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. and Munny’s Gold came to her withers nearing the quarter pole, but Mel did not yield. She never yielded.

Giddings leaned on the rail in the winner’s circle, looking up the track. Mel opened up again, and led by two lengths leaving the sixteenth pole, 100 yards from the finish. Then 50 yards. Twenty yards. Crowd roaring, creaking grandstand shaking. Giddings knew it was over; everybody knew it was over. Just before Mel reached the line, Giddings turned away from the track, put her hands in the air and began celebrating. Her eyes locked on a young woman who suddenly threw her hands over her mouth as if to muffle a scream. Saratoga fell almost silent.

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This weekend at Santa Anita in Southern California, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be run for the 40th time. The event was conceived in the early 1980s by Kentucky breeder John Gaines as an outside-the-box disruption to racing’s calendar, which had been in place for decades, leaving the sport stagnant. Gaines called for seven races in a single autumn day, each worth at least $1 million. He was dismissed. One peer asked publicly if Gaines had been “smoking marijuana,” which in those years would have been the ultimate wealthy guy takedown. Gaines persisted and the first Breeders’ Cup was run in 1984. This weekend will include two days, 14 races and $31 million in purses. Horse racing continues to fight for mainstream relevance, but the Breeders’ Cup is an unlikely and embedded success.

As you may have known, or by now surmised, Maple Leaf Mel will not be the favorite in Saturday’s Filly and Mare Sprint, or any other race. She fell to the track at Saratoga that splendid afternoon in August and was euthanized in the dirt under a falling sun. It is, however, likely that her name will be invoked in some form, because for half-a-decade now racing has been conducted while under intense and increasing scrutiny for horse fatalities that occur in training or racing. Notably, during training for the Breeders’ Cup, there were two incidents in four days: On Oct 28, Classic contender Geaux Rocket Ride suffered a leg fracture in a workout, underwent surgery, and according to a Monday statement from his owners, wasn’t recovering as hoped post-procedure; and on Tuesday morning, Mile entrant Practical Move died of an apparent cardiac event after a morning gallop. Also notable was trainer Jena Antonucci’s decision Tuesday to scratch Belmont Stakes winner Arcangelo from the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a left hind foot issue. “Putting him first,’' Antonucci said. “Even if it means we won’t participate.”

It is a complex and emotional topic that surged into mainstream consciousness in the winter and spring of 2019, when 30 horses died racing and training at Santa Anita and was resurfaced in the fall of that year when Mongolian Groom broke down on that same track minutes after the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was later euthanized. (Santa Anita responded to its crisis by implementing measures that made the track one of the statistically safest in the country.) There have been other smaller death clusters since, at Laurel Park in Maryland, at Saratoga just this past summer. No cluster caught more attention than last spring at Churchill Downs, when five horses died in the week leading to the Kentucky Derby, and two more on Derby Day, when pre-race favorite Forte was also scratched by a state veterinarian who found a bruised right hoof, over the objection of Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher who, along with owner Mike Repole, felt that Forte was healthy enough to run. (Churchill Downs subsequently ceased racing on June 7 and resumed in September after implementing numerous measures intended to improve horse safety).

Two weeks later at Pimlico, 2-year-old colt Havnameltdown, handled by third-rail trainer Bob Baffert, broke down nearing the top of the stretch and was euthanized on the track. In an interview with NBC’s Kenny Rice after later winning the Preakness with National Treasure, Baffert referred to Havnameltdown as “that horse” and National Treasure as “this horse,” which is fairly typical Baffert-speak, but was perceived by some fans and media as insufficiently empathetic to the powerful duality of the moment.

Since 2009, horse fatalities at North American racetracks have dropped from 2.00 to 1.25 for every 1,000 starts, according to data compiled by The Jockey Club for its Equine Injury Database and released last March. That is a significant improvement, while under severe scrutiny from media and animal welfare groups. But the spate of high-profile, televised and intensely covered deaths this year have gained more traction than the broader progress. And with deaths come blame. Blame on weather. Blame on track surfaces. Blame on the breeding industry. But most of all, blame on trainers, enough of whom have been found willing to risk a horse’s health to get him home first, that their collective behavior is made suspect, fairly or not.

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It is autumn now, mid-October in Saratoga, where Giddings lives with her partner, former jockey Shaun Bridgmohan. More than two months have passed since Maple Leaf Mel’s death; it’s sunny again, but a cool breeze rustles across the grounds. The leaves are turning. The Oklahoma Training Track, across Union Ave. from the main facility, remains open and a few trainers have kept horses on the grounds. Racing has moved south to Aqueduct in Queens, so it’s quiet. Peaceful. Giddings is sitting across from me at a picnic table near her barn, a long, pale grey wooden structure with a slate roof that is likely decades old and tons heavy. Her stable has grown to 16 horses, most of whom are here, but will soon move south to Florida for the winter.

Back to August. The woman Giddings saw cover her mouth with her hands, those 44,000 spectators, a television audience, and millions since on YouTube? This is what they saw:

Maple Leaf Mel, winning, no more than three jumps (strides) from the finish, a distance of less than 20 feet. Then she pitched forward, dumping her chest all the way to the earth and that feminine face into the dirt. Jockey Joel Rosario was thrown over the handlebars. Six horses ran past. Mel rolled wildly onto her right side, then flipped to her left, and rose to her feet with remarkable grace, given what had happened. She tried to run, because they always try to run. Her right foreleg was clearly damaged. All of this took no more than two seconds. It is not uncommon for horses to break down in competition and if you’ve seen it happen, you don’t forget. But this moment was extreme: A horse breaking down nearly at the wire in a major race, while winning. It was a multiplier.

Giddings did not see the fall and its immediate aftermath, still has not, and says she never will. But in the moment, she knew what had happened and what would most likely ensue. “I’ve been around racetracks for something like 26 years, so I’ve seen horses break down. But never like that. And one of my own…” She grimaces. “I know I ran out onto the track, which was crazy, because I didn’t even look to see if there were horses out there. And everybody was just trying to stop me and get me back to the barn. I’m sure I was in shock.”

There was no goodbye.

“They wouldn’t let me,” she says. Pause. “Probably for the best.”

A grim ritual ensued. The horse ambulance pulled up near Mel, people scurried around erecting a crinkly screen to prevent spectators from seeing what they damn well knew was happening. (Frankly, there must be a better way to do this). And then the horse ambulance became a horse hearse and took Mel away. The trainer went back to the barn without her filly.

Some background: Horses came early to Giddings’ life. She grew up the youngest of four children born to Allen and Susan Giddings in Cobourg, Ontario, a town of 19,000, on the north shore of Lake Ontario, 60 miles east of Toronto. Giddings’ aunt and uncle kept a barn in the nearby countryside, with four horses. “I would skip school to go there,” says Giddings. Her parents eventually got her riding lessons at Adanac Horse Farm (“Canada spelled backward,” says Giddings, and of course it is) near Cobourg. Game over. At 16, Giddings got a job galloping horses at Woodbine Race Track in the Toronto suburbs; from ages 24-26, a late start, she was a jockey. She rode 112 races, won six, and moved on. In her late 20s she went to work for trainer Mark Casse and married his son, Norman (they are divorced). She later worked for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and helped run Al Stall, Jr.’s barn, making the subtle transition from horseback to management. She went to Englehart next.

Giddings did all this while for several years beating back and slogging through pain that was diagnosed in late 2019 as Stage 4 endocervical and ovarian cancer. In 2020, she underwent 10 hours of surgery at Baptist Health in Louisville, followed by 12 rounds of chemotherapy and 28 radiation treatments. Her last chemotherapy infusion was on Dec. 2, 2020, her 37th birthday; radiation ended in February 2021. She willed herself toward normalcy. “I dragged myself to hot yoga,’’ says Giddings. “Picture me: I’m swollen, about twice my regular weight from all the steroids. I’m bald, I don’t have eyelashes or eyebrows. The instructor was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’’’

Point being: The woman who arrived back at Barn 69 on that August evening, with Maple Leaf Mel’s stall 18 empty, was armed with thick skin, deep resolve and challenging life experience. Still, she was staggered. “She was exactly how I thought she would be,” says Englehart. “She was there at the rail, and Maple Leaf Mel was going to win the race, which is a huge accomplishment not just for the trainer, but the owner, the horse, the jockey. And then everything is taken away the second before the wire. It was tough. Really tough.” The next morning, Parcells came to the barn and applied a balm of support and tough love. “Coach came over and he told Melanie, ‘Hey, take 24 hours to grieve, and then it’s, let’s get back to work.’ And he wasn’t being heartless. He went above and beyond to let her know that things were going to be OK.”

Giddings indeed went back to work, but August 5 stayed with her. She questioned herself. “For the longest time, I was just thinking, what really happened?” says Giddings. “How did she actually break down? Was it my fault? Did I do something? Did I miss something? Was it her? Did she step in a spot? I think it’s human nature to constantly wonder what the answer is.”

Many of those answers – you never get all of them, because neither living nor deceased horses speak – came during a post-mortem review with a team of veterinarians working with the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA). Maple Leaf Mel’s necropsy report will be part of a review covering the entire Saratoga 2023 meet and has not yet been made public. However, an individual with access to the report (not Giddings) told NBC Sports that it shows Maple Leaf Mel suffered a rupture of the suspensory apparatus (ligaments) at the level of the sesamoid bones in the fetlock (ankle) joint in her right front leg. The regulatory veterinarian who examined Maple Leaf Mel on the racetrack after her fall also wrote that Mel had suffered “fractures” in both sesamoids. Whether those fractures or the ligament rupture was the primary cause of Mel’s breakdown – or which came first – is unclear and will remain so. (HISA is currently working with Amazon Web Services to use AI in analyzing injuries and helping prevent them.)

Also: The bottom-line reason Mel was euthanized immediately was the “disarticulation” of the fetlock joint, meaning that there was an open wound, leading to contamination by the track soil and near-certain infection if surgery was attempted. There is a procedure by which the fetlock joint can be effectively fused – arthrodesis – and a horse saved in some cases, but that procedure is impractical if there is wound contamination. The decision to euthanize Mel was as straightforward as it was painful for the veterinary team on site.

Most important: The necropsy report showed no pre-existing lesions (damage or wear) in Maple Leaf Mel’s fetlock joint or any other conditions which would have predisposed her to injury or catastrophic breakdown. This did not surprise Giddings. “The post-mortem process was educational, in general,” Giddings says. “But did I learn anything about my horse? No, not particularly. I know how we cared for her.” Giddings also said that early last spring, Mel was given an injection of hyaluronic acid in her left stifle, a large joint in the horse’s hind end, analogous to the human knee. “Just trying to make her feel comfortable, and give her the best possible chance,” says Giddings. “She was never lame, or off.” Intra-articular corticosteroid injections have been identified as a possible contributing factor in some breakdowns and are closely monitored. Giddings says Maple Leaf Mel never received corticosteroids.

Seventeen horses died at Saratoga in 2023 (including 13 in racing and training during the race meeting, a span of less than two months), which New York State Equine Medical Director Scott Palmer, a veterinarian, described as “statistically similar to [some] previous years.” Palmer said that number was consistent with numbers from 2012, ’16 and ’19; but lower than 2017 and ’20, when 21 horses died each year. In a paper presented in early October, Palmer also wrote that the Saratoga track condition, influenced by heavy rain, was a likely factor in the fatalities. “…increased moisture in the Saratoga main dirt track and spatial and temporal variation of the moisture content of the track during the meet were likely contributing factors to the increase in the number of racing fatalities…” Inconsistent track condition due to heavy rain was also cited as a factor in the 2019 Santa Anita deaths.

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Back at Saratoga in fall. Giddings has pushed forward. “I have all these other horses in the barn, and they don’t know what happened,” she says. Giddings senses Maple Leaf Mel’s absence every morning and every afternoon. How could she not? “Just her being her,” says Giddings. “She was a high-maintenance horse, in terms of her energy. So every day, she was constantly on my mind. What is she doing? Is she going nuts in the stall? Is she happy, is she not happy?

“She would always holler at me, even if I was out in the field picking grass for her,” says Giddings. “She just knew. She knew however many horses there were in the barn, I was coming to her first. So many memories. So yeah… I think about her all the time.” Giddings had mapped out Mel’s future; she would not stretch her out to longer distances (and more money). She would not run her in the $1 million Cotillion at Parx Racing in September, because that is a mile; instead, she had planned to run the furlong-shorter Dogwood, at Churchill Downs, for $275,000. And then on to this week’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, at seven furlongs, for $1 million, rather than the Distaff, for $2 million. “People on the outside think it’s about the money,” says Giddings. “I didn’t care about the money. I didn’t want those other races for her. I just wanted her to finish her career and enjoy life.” Giddings also said Maple Leaf Mel would have been retired after this year, a decision Parcells had left to her.

Giddings and Maple Leaf Mel complicate a powerful narrative, that horses are abused by humans for money. That happens. But racing as an institution likes to insist that most people inside the sport love horses, often nebulously. Giddings is the embodiment of that argument. She cared faithfully for Maple Leaf Mel, sent her to the racetrack healthy and yet she still died there. It is both reassuring that a trainer is verifiably so caring – which would benefit the sport writ large – and disturbing that a horse given excellent care and walked into the starting gate whole, could die on the track. And it is why the issue of thoroughbred fatalities is so fraught, and so challenging.

And always personal. Because with every horse, there is an owner, a trainer, a groom, a hotwalker. Just to start. As Giddings sat in the autumn sun, she could see her shedrow through the trees. Stall 18 is now occupied by another grey, 3-year-old filly, from the same sire as Mel. Her name is written on a white strip next to the stall: Mel’s Baby Sister. Beneath that, another strip of white and another handwritten name, a memorial:

Maple Leaf Mel. Punctuated by a heart in the same black ink, already faded by time.