Parade ring tragedy strikes at Newbury
'The weirdest thing I've ever seen," is how trainer Jonjo O'Neill described the bewildering events at Newbury that led to the abandonment of their high-profile Tote Gold Trophy meeting after just one race.
One of the final proper springboards to the Cheltenham Festival, the fixture's demise came as a result of the fatalities of two horses -- Fenix Two and Marching Song -- which collapsed and died within moments of each other as they circled in the parade ring before the opening novice hurdle.
An inquiry and immediate post-mortem examinations were announced, with the reasons for the deaths unknown amid speculation the horses died from some form of electric shock emanating from underneath the paddock.
Some horses had already made it down to the start and there were reports that others had "wobbled" on entering the paddock. Eerily at 1.28, the racecourse announcer declared that "two horses have been withdrawn from the first race".
Nicky Henderson's runner Kid Cassidy, one of those to have wobbled in the paddock, became a further withdrawal on veterinary advice at the start. Despite running the first race, a decision was taken to call the rest of the meeting off.
"The Newbury executive have decided that racing today has been abandoned," a statement released at 2.10 read.
Jonjo O'Neill, trainer of Fenix Two, spoke afterwards of the bizarre events: "Kid Cassidy was in front and he took a turn. We thought he was bucking and kicking and he went down on his knees then he seemed to be okay.
"Mine reared up and we couldn't get him back, it was like he was stuck to the ground. It was the weirdest thing I've ever seen in my life."
Marching Song's part-owner Graham Thorner said: "I was very fond of him and he had great potential. To a layman with no evidence, you would say it was electrical. The lad who was with him was saying, 'I'm getting an electric shock off this horse'."
Denman's owner Paul Barber was in the paddock. "The girl of Turnell's said she felt a tingling as she led them round and then Nicky's horse went down. They were getting the shocks off the grass, not off the tarmac. I've never seen anything like that ever."
Asked about rumours that a lead rein on one of the dead horses looked burned, as if it had been electrocuted, stipendiary steward Paul Barton said: "One of the reasons we couldn't continue was because of all the speculation. The lead rein could have snapped if it was stood on by another horse when it was on the ground. The rein will go away for forensic examination to establish what happened to it. We certainly won't get the results of the post mortems today and after our meeting at 3.0 I doubt we will be making any more statements."
Racecourse vet Jamie O'Gorman told Channel 4 Racing: "I was standing in the middle of the paddock and I could see out of the corner of my eye one horse playing up and then another one, and then the one behind that. My initial thought was that the first horse had set the other ones off, it was only when the first horse began to buckle over at the stifle and really started struggling it became apparent there was a serious problem going on. The post-mortem will certainly be able to rule out several other causes of death, but there is a distinct possibility it will come back inconclusive."
O'Gorman's colleague Tom Campbell added: "I went to Jonjo's horse Fenix Two and tried to restrain him while he was on the ground, stop him seizuring and injuring people. While he was down and on his side there was an unpleasant sensation touching him, like an electrical stimulus. It was worse when I went up to his ears where he was sweating and warmer. I tried to administer some drugs to him, but unfortunately he died a couple of minutes later."
Newbury's long-serving clerk of the course Richard Osgood was asked whether there was any electrical cabling under the paddock.
"As far as I know, I don't know of any," he said. "Bear in mind this place has been here for 100 years so maybe there could be some very old cables, but I don't know."
The Southern Electricity Board later arrived to carry out a thorough investigation of the paddock area. The abandonment of such a strategically important fixture on the calendar under such tragically bizarre circumstances caused trainers to consider further consequences in the context of Cheltenham plans.
Trainer Philip Hobbs was keen that the meeting be rescheduled in the coming days.
"The only thing I know is that now it has been abandoned hopefully we can get the meeting on again next week, it's absolutely vital for all of us as we have nowhere to go and Cheltenham coming up. I was with Paul Nicholls, Alan King and Nigel Twiston-Davies and we were shocked when we found out it was off, but we don't know all the facts.
"I would have been happy to carry on, we badly need to as their aren't opportunities for these horses anywhere else. I spoke to Stuart Middleton at the British Horseracing Authority (race planning) -- it looks possible it might go ahead again in the next few days, but for it to go ahead they have to sort out the problem here."
On a bewildering day for even the most seasoned racing professionals at Newbury, events at the other showcase meeting at Leopardstown were understandably deeply overshadowed.
However, lest we need further reminding of the extreme vagaries of the sport of horse-racing, while owner JP McManus was cruelly losing one promising horse (Fenix Two) at one venue, he was winning the Hennessy Gold Cup at another (Kempes).
"I'd imagine he'll go for the Cheltenham Gold Cup next and better ground should suit too -- the ground might not be as bad as we thought today," said trainer Willie Mullins.
Even away from Newbury, punters were not spared tragedy as Glencove Marina collapsed and died after crossing the line second and Money Trix picked up a serious injury. There was no news last night as to whether he can be saved.
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