Seconds before Wake at Noon's fatal stumble, rider Dessislav Luokanov could feel the former champion thoroughbred dancing beneath him.
"The way he acted, the way he moved, he wanted to go," the professional exercise rider told an Ontario Racing Commission tribunal Tuesday.
"He trotted, then he galloped. … He was total perfection," Luokanov said. "And he made the wrong step."
Wake at Noon, Canada's top thoroughbred in 2002, was euthanized June 29 after he fell and broke two legs during a workout at Woodbine racetrack in Toronto. It was the first time he'd stepped onto a major race facility since his retirement from competition in 2007.
At 13, the chestnut was old by racing standards, and the death of the popular former champion shocked the racing community. Following the incident, the horse's trainer, Tom Marino, was banned indefinitely from Woodbine. The horse's owner, Bruno Schickedanz, is barred from stabling or racing his horses there.
Schickedanz requested the tribunal hearing Tuesday in an attempt to have the three-person panel make Woodbine Entertainment Group reverse the ban. His lawyer, Frank Roth, characterized the incident as a tragic accident.
On Tuesday, Schickedanz, along with several of his current and former staff, testified that in the months leading up to his death, Wake at Noon appeared fit and eager to run. He had been training for several months at the Schickedanz farm, they said.
"He acted like a youngster," said Schickedanz, who said he owns about 500 horses at various racetracks, as well as in Florida and his Ontario farm.
The purpose for Wake at Noon's trip to Woodbine was to assess his fitness level, although the decision to have the horse get back into racing had not yet been made, Schickedanz said.
But Woodbine officials said the owner and trainer exercised poor judgment and took an unnecessary risk by putting Wake at Noon to work, especially considering his age and the fact that this was the second time he was being brought out of retirement.
"It was a bad decision because that horse didn't belong in racing or training any more," Stephen Koch, vice-president of thoroughbred racing at Woodbine, told the panel.
Wake at Noon began his career in 1999 and raced 67 times with 21 wins, including 12 stakes victories. He earned $1.6-million in 2002. He had been retired twice, in 2004 and in 2007. He had limited success as a stud.
There are no rules explicitly banning older horses from racing or training at Woodbine, although age and competition history are considerations when permitting race entries. The tribunal heard that several dozen horses between 11 and 13 have competed on North American racetracks in recent months. While deaths at the racetrack are rare, they can happen to horses of all ages.
An independent investigation into the incident is being conducted by the Ontario Racing Commission, which oversees racing in the province. Investigators are waiting for the results of a necropsy. The final report could take months.
Roth suggested that track officials quickly doled out a harsh punishment because they wanted to stem the flow of bad publicity after Wake at Noon's death, particularly since the death occurred around the same time as the Queen's Plate.
"Our decisions are purely based on our business interests, and it's in our interest to protect the health and welfare of the horses at our facility," responded Jamie Martin, executive vice-president of racing at Woodbine. He said he personally interviewed numerous staff before deciding to ban the two horse operators.
"We have one of the best safety records in North America," Martin said. "So it's very important for us to keep that."
The tribunal hearing continues Aug. 26.
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