A Good Man to Have in Europe's Corner

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Des Leadon | Racing Post

By

ARCADIA, CA–Another day of sun in La La Land. These days, however, the very flawlessness of the skies above Santa Anita contains a menace of its own. And just as you know the wildfires are out there, consuming the desiccated forests, so does this horseracing paradise dread a new inferno in its own moral undergrowth.

In both cases, you respect the danger; you take the precautions you can. But ultimately you can only hope that the winds of fortune blow the right way, so that this Arcadian idyll does not prove to be perfect only as an illusion.

The stage certainly seemed as dreamy as ever yesterday, as daybreak turned the San Gabriel Mountains into the dark tassels of a rising curtain of light. Of course, many attribute the springtime traumas of Santa Anita (at least in part) to another of those unnerving climatic extremes lately experienced in California: a freakishly wet winter. And, to be fair, the incendiary calamity of so many breakdowns has sooner been doused by faith than hope.

The introduction of stricter protocols to California has made a difference precisely because it should make a difference. But racing can never eliminate absolutely every risk, and a showcase like the 36th Breeders' Cup remains vulnerable to the kind of misfortune against which the sport can never be insured: sheer bad timing.

It was a comfort, then, to arrive at the quarantine barn and find at his post a sentinel as seasoned and vigilant as Des Leadon. Besides the many other services for which he is so valued in Ireland, in capacities both formal and informal, Leadon has for years been the veterinary seat-belt fastened around many of those precious equine aviators who have created a new, international era for the modern sport.

On arriving the previous day, Leadon was restoring himself with a steak at a bar when the couple next to him happened to notice his Breeders' Cup logo. The woman asked about his involvement, and then told him that she had been following media coverage of the Santa Anita's problems–and been offended, on racing's behalf, by criticism of a community at such obvious pains to keep their horses safe and contented.

As a perspective of an outsider, that was heartening for Leadon to hear. He knows that the sport will never win over those fanatics who would rather have no Thoroughbreds at all-apart, presumably, from a few in zoos (not the best house pets, after all)–than expose them to any risk whatsoever, however scrupulously managed. But he nonetheless hopes that the sport can prove itself deserving of broader public confidence.

True, not everyone will match the actuarial grasp of risk that distinguished the witness of one freak catastrophe on his own stud near Punchestown.

“We had the chairman of the Lloyd's livestock committee with us for supper,” Leadon says. “It was a lovely summer evening and they went cantering past the window and this beautiful creature, a foal we were so proud of, just broke its foreleg–snap–and we had to rush out and euthanise. So the idea that by stopping racing you can stop horses breaking legs is not borne out by the reality.

“Horses enjoy racing. If you put them out into a large enough paddock, and in sufficient numbers, they'll compete with each other because they enjoy it. It's an enjoyable spectacle, and it gets people back into a milieu where they're at least thinking about animals. Too many think that milk comes not from a cow, but from a carton in the fridge. In giving people these wonderful sporting days out, we always have what John Oxx calls 'willing accomplices'.”

Leadon feels there are still things we can do help ourselves. For a start, he finds continued reference to “the whip” to be distasteful, outdated and damaging.

“A whip was the sort of thing that might be used on some poor unfortunate sailor tied to the mast hundreds of years ago,” he says. “Or arguably what Fred Archer was so often depicted as carrying: this long, lethally flexible, thin weapon that could cut horses. In that context, the padded stick of today is not 'a whip'.”

Nor does he view that implement as something of which the sport should be ashamed. Speaking for himself, Leadon feels that beating a horse is never acceptable but he is perfectly comfortable as a veterinarian, dedicated to animal welfare, with the odd “smack” to steer or communicate urgency.

“Because if you're talking about why we have racing, the phrase has always been 'the betterment of the breed',” he explains. “And if we want to identify the elite athletes, should some big lazy 3-year-old colt be allowed to 'doss', and not demonstrate his true genetic merit, because we're not allowed to give him a tap? Because we're not allowed to say: 'Come on, now's the moment when you justify all this wonderful, cocooned luxury!'?”

The devotion of horsemen to their charges is something that Leadon would like to see front and centre of all industry representation. He is offended when the media seeks the case “for” the horse from lobbies aggressive to the sport; and while he views “welfare” as rather too nebulous a concept to be formally incorporated into letterheads, he can see a role for “guardian.”

“I prefer that word because it implies you're not the parent but you're in loco parentis,” he says. “You're there to look after the horse's best interests, at every stage of its life. I think we should be much more proactive in standing up for ourselves as good guardians of the Thoroughbred. We're not perfect, but we're very good and we're always working to be better yet.

“We plan our matings with great care; we're there at the moment of birth; we guide them through their neonatal period; we're very careful where and how they get 'broken'; and how they learn the confidence that stands them in good stead in their racing careers and beyond. We monitor them, we protect their health status with vaccinations, they get instant care if ever they need it in a way we don't necessarily enjoy as human beings.”

He considers the industry ever more aware of its responsibilities to the retired racehorse, too, albeit the Americans have set a stronger pace in rehoming partly through a less daunting population ratio. In his own case, the homebred Dinozzo (Ire) (Lilbourne Lad {Ire}) was recently repatriated to his birthplace after an industrious and fertile career in Hong Kong.

But these reflections on the big picture will have to inform very specific decisions and challenges this week. The horses stabled in the quarantine barn will this week be monitored with the utmost care. That's not just a reflection on the rigour of the new protocols, however. To a large extent, that's the way it has always been. Last year at Churchill, after all, Freddy Head was incensed when Mile favourite Polydream (Ire) (Oasis Dream {GB}) was scratched on veterinary orders after being deemed lame on the eve of the race.

Leadon insists that the cost and commitment that has brought horses such long distances has never been a factor, even in borderline cases.

“Intuitively, you'd think that,” he says. “But I can tell you that in all of my experience, with all the trainers I've ever interfaced with, I have never found that to be an issue. As soon as somebody is shown to be 'clean hands', independent but concerned for everybody's best interests, then I have always found a ready acceptance of the opinion given.”

Not that he is complacent, either regarding the overall image of the sport or its individual, case-by-case dilemmas-the resolution of which will help determine that image, for better or worse. Yesterday most of the overseas horses remained in the limbo during which even standard procedures are contingent on USDA authorisation, pending blood test results. And Leadon's next task, after giving his time to TDN, was to negotiate a treatment within those constraints.

“When you bring 40 horses here, there's always going to be an issue with one or two,” he says with a shrug. “They're at a stage of their career evolution when they've miles on the clock. They'll need management as regards what's acceptable, as a degree of risk. There's always a balance, and that has to be achieved on the basis of very informed discussion. In all these years I've been coming to the Breeders' Cup, I've been regularly involved with the officials, the treating vets who are licensed to practise on the track here, and the regulatory vets. It's a very dynamic dialogue, and there needs to be a balance between everyone's input. But I think those systems have stood the test of time fairly well.”

With a man like this to help, then, let's just hope they can together pass the test–the exceptional test–of this particular time, and this particular place.

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