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Miss Pocket Picker was probably dead by the time she crossed the finish line.
The 4-year-old filly had been leading Saturday’s eighth race at Laurel Park, but she broke down for no obvious reason heading down the stretch, about 200 yards from victory. Jockey Oscar Mancilla tumbled headfirst onto the track and was trampled by a trailing horse before he’d even stopped rolling. Staff paramedics tended to the downed rider almost immediately. They saw that Mancilla’s right leg had snapped clean just above the knee, and they quickly readied a temporary cast to stabilize the broken limb.
Behind Mancilla and the paramedics, Miss Pocket Picker struggled alone for several seconds, trying to rise from the cold dirt. She eventually got up, then stumbled toward the grandstand. Her right front leg had snapped, much like her rider’s, and it flopped around with every awkward step. Patrons poured out of the clubhouse and began gathering along the rail near the crash site, making the animal even more spooked. A worker from Miss Pocket Picker’s barn ran onto the track and grabbed her reins. He petted her nose, and patted her side, and held her head, and talked softly to her while waiting for help. A track veterinarian arrived on the scene within a minute, at about the same time as Wayne Bailey, the only trainer Miss Pocket Picker had
Exactly how Bailey had become Miss Pocket Picker’s trainer is part of one of the most improbable success stories in Maryland racing. In 1994, he was just a feed salesman who really liked the animals and the sport when a regular customer from West River named Les Merton asked if he’d like to train a colt on his farm that nobody else wanted. Wise Dusty was the son of a no-name stallion of Merton’s and a mare that he’d bought for $1yes, a single buck. Despite the humble bloodlines, Merton had convinced himself that the home-bred youngster looked like a racehorse. Every established trainer he’d talked to, however, had told him that Wise Dusty, then 3 years old and unraced, wouldn’t fetch much more than his mother on the open market. Bailey had no other owners knocking at his door, so he took Merton up on his offer. He quickly detected a leg problem that none of the “real” trainers had spotted, and corrected it. Wise Dusty went on to win several stakes and purses totaling $515,000, and by now most Laurel Park and Pimlico regulars know the tale of the feed salesman and his $1 horse.
Merton used Wise Dusty’s earnings to build up a stable and began handing Bailey the reins to all his animals, including the filly that lived right next to Wise Dusty, in Stall 40 of Barn 4 at Bowie Race Course: Miss Pocket Picker.
Bailey still sells feed part-time, but Miss Pocket Picker’s recent successesshe’d finished in the money in her last six starts, including two wins in allowance raceshad him thinking of giving it up to devote his entire workweek to training by the time of the Laurel Park tragedy. But on this horrific day, his worst in racing, he wasn’t dwelling much on the future. He’d seen horses break down on the farm or in races after stepping into a hole or tripping on something or being kicked in traffic. He’d never seen one collapse while cruising down the stretch toward an easy victory. He’d never seen anything like this.
The Laurel Park vet determined how to treat Miss Pocket Picker about as quickly as he diagnosed her flopping limb as broken. There would be no temporary cast. He called for the boys from the barns to shield Miss Pocket Picker from the grandstands, and vice versa, with a big curtain, and, without bothering to seek Bailey’s approval, injected her with a lethal dose of what is labeled simply “euthanization fluid.” Miss Pocket Picker was the fourth horse to get the death shot at Laurel Park this year; 18 others were destroyed at Maryland tracks in 1998.
Bailey, if asked, would have given the go-ahead. He’d been around horses long enough to rate the species as one of evolution’s great failures. The same thing that makes a horse at full gait such an amazing sight can make for a very pathetic one if something happens and all the parts no longer fit together. It makes no sense that animals that weigh close to a ton and are otherwise built for speeds of more than 35 miles an hour are cursed with such skinny, fragile legslegs that snap too easily, then don’t ever heal.
Miss Pocket Picker sank slowly back to the dirt as the poison did its merciful deed. When she stopped moving, the worker who’d been comforting her removed the bridle and reins. It took him and several others to drag Miss Pocket Picker’s covered and limp body up a ramp and onto a big white trailer with a huge red cross painted on its side. A few men jumped on the makeshift hearse to ride with her past the finish line one final time, then on to the backstretch.
Bailey didn’t tag along on Miss Pocket Picker’s last ride. He stayed with Mancilla, his regular rider. The jockey was already on a stretcher and was alert, but he looked pale and scared. So Bailey, though depressed and shaken by all that had happened, started joking with Mancilla in the hope of keeping him out of shock.
“Hey, Oscar: I guess this means you’re not riding for me tomorrow?” Bailey said.
“No, Boss, I don’t think I can make it,” said Mancilla, trying to smile.
Some color had returned to Mancilla’s face before paramedics put him on a stretcher and hauled him off to a local hospital. Bailey followed the ambulance there in an empty horse trailer, with Miss Pocket Picker’s bridle by his side. He wanted to make sure Mancilla got the best care available, so he had him moved to the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore. Still joking, Bailey told Mancilla to make sure the doctors inserted a graphite bar, and not a steel one, into his broken leg so the jockey would have an easier time keeping his weight down when he gets back in the saddle. Doctors told him to expect a full recovery.
Miss Pocket Picker spent the weekend at Laurel Park. Right around the time Mancilla left the track by ambulance, a crew unloaded her into a remote pen on the track grounds, back by the vehicle-maintenance garage. A call was placed to Valley Proteins, the firm contracted by the track to take care of horses’ remains. But Valley Proteins makes pickups only on weekdays, so it was Monday afternoon before a driver came by to bring Miss Pocket Picker to the company’s Baltimore plant. There, all sorts of nonhuman detritus, like roadkill, and dead pets, and destroyed fillies, are reduced into ingredients for pet food.Dave McKenna