by Paul Beattie
(Auburn, WA) Sunday, July 17 was set to be an incredible day at Emerald Downs. 4 big stakes races with $200,000 on the line. Each race had several stories each with their own characters. The anticipation was great for those involved and for the huge fan base that attended to take in this special day.
There was no bigger story though than in the 1st of the four Stakes races. The Emerald Express featured only 5 horses much do no doubt because of the presence of The Chilli Man. The 2-year-old gelding caught the attention not only of local horsemen and fans but the entire industry after winning his debut by 11 lengths and posting an 81 Beyer. That single performance led to phone calls to The Chilli Man’s connections, owner Heidi Nelson and trainer Monique Snowden.
There were discussions about a private sale of The Chilli Man with a sales price rumored to be north or south of $400,000. Nelson bought the horse at an auction for $70,000 so this would be quite a profit after only 2 races. The connections were at Emerald Downs to watch The Chilli Man in action. The betting public agreed of the 4 races this one was over before the gates open. The Chilli Man went off as the 2-5 betting favorite and even attracted a huge show bettor who laid down an $80,000 show bet on The Chilli Man. This type of bet is known as a bridge jumper, a cruel irony that will later play out in a heartbreakingly, tragic way.
In these cases the word gamble is well defined as the game of horse racing is indeed a gamble and nothing is for certain. When the gates popped open The Chilli Man got off to a slow start. As they hit the turn The Chilli Man looked like he was struggling and drifted wide. Although he was making slow progress by midway around the turn it appeared he would not win the race but still may run on for a 2nd or 3rd place finish when tragedy struck. The Chilli Man took a bad step and jockey Joe Steiner immediately pulled him up at the top of the stretch.
After The Chilli Man was examined it was determined he suffered a fractured back leg and had to be euthanized. Broken legs are still fatal injuries to horses. For the most part news of the seriousness of The Chilli Man’s injury wouldn’t be well known until much later. The other 3 stakes races were run all with some incredible stories and performances.
The news of the fate of The Chilli Man came later and it reminded all racing fans of how delicate these amazing animals truly are and one bad step can indeed lead to tragedy. I know there are a lot of people who don’t understand how horsemen and fans can live with this part of the industry. I know I won’t change their minds when I say these animals are born to do this, born to run and if they were out running around in a field they could easily take the same miss step and the end would be the same tragic conclusion.
I can say I have witnessed the love and care 99% of the horsemen give to their animals and when they are done competing how they are retired and taken care of. Are there exceptions to this, of course the answer is yes but there is no industry working as hard as the horse racing industry in trying to make sure retired horses are all taken care of and allowed to live their retired life in peace and comfort. The NFL should take lessons on how to take care of their retired players. Is there more work for horse racing, yes but they are working hard on this issue. In the end though we won’t change anyone’s mind.
The Chilli Man’s death was far from being the only tragedy. The story turns horrific when it’s reported that The Chilli Man’s 37-year-old trainer Monique Snowden died later that night. Snowden, it is believed, jumped off a bridge near Enumclaw late Sunday night after The Chilli Man was put down. She fell 160-feet to her death. Monique was married to Dennis Snowden an assistant trainer to Frank Lucarelli. Horse racing was in her blood and by all reports she was dedicated and loved her horses. Dennis told the Everett Herald that it wasn’t about the money for Monique it was about her love for the horses. (Link to the Herald Story here)
I was at the races on Sunday covering the 4 Stakes races looking for stories about the winners, smiles, odd little notes and the fun side of the sport that we all love. In my final story I did mention the fate of The Chilli Man but tried focus on the positive. Believing there is too much ugly news now days in our lives I wanted to present this day as joyful and exciting and I did and it was the right angle to take in my view.
But as more details came out and Monique’s death it seemed disrespectful not to address this and to understand as best we can the deep dilemma Monique faced in her own mind. It was reported in the Herald story that Monique suffered from other issues and was having a hard time sorting through including her own mother’s death from suicide after learning she had esophageal cancer. I will not even begin to imagine the pain she was suffering internally that pushed her to this conclusion.
What is not in doubt is her love and dedication to her animals. Her love of thoroughbred racing and this close knit community that surrounds it. Everyone I talked with was so excited for her but were also bittersweet about The Chilli Man and the apparent sale. They were excited that a young up and coming trainer like Monique got an opportunity to handle such a 1 of a kind horse and sad that he was going to be taken away and moved to another trainer’s barn under a new owner. But they also knew this would put her on the map as a trainer and big things were coming her way.
None of us imagined that The Chilli Man would be taken from her in this way. It may have been the last piece to push her into a desperate action, we will never know. I never got to meet or talk with her, I was waiting until after the race as I too assumed The Chilli Man would likely win and if not have a strong effort. Then after hearing of The Chilli Man’s fate I would give her time and space and maybe talk with in a few weeks, let her have a chance to grieve.
I am saddened that I will not be able to do that interview, not because I wanted a story but because a beautiful person could not see another way out of her hidden pain. There is no way in my view you can judge this from any perspective other than the tragedy it is. All I know is we had a great Cinderellaesque story with true local heroes and it has turned into heartbreak.
There is no blame to pass around or to put on one person or event. This isn’t a blaming situation even though that is the natural reaction. This is a story of hope, dedication and most of all love. We can not change the tragedy of Sunday, July 17th but we can focus our memory on the goodness of Monique and this industry. We can focus on the love we have for everyone in this sport and the connection we have. There is such respect between the horsemen, the administration and the fans we all know we are in one big private club and no doubt all of our hearts were broken this past weekend.
Please be kind and thoughtful. Please send your heartfelt thoughts and condolences to Dennis and the whole Emerald Downs family and understand we are all part of this awesome family.