At a racetrack where an estimated three horses die each year, two mares died within about 15 minutes Monday afternoon at The Meadows.
Preparing for race 14, Lislea Isabella, an 8-year-old, appeared to “choke down” – an industry term for a type of inability to breathe – said Brady Brown, the driver. Virginia Schoeffel and Kathy Schoeffel owned the horse, and Steve Schoeffel was the trainer.
Then, during race 15, Little Bit Tricky, a 7-year-old driven by Brett Miller, died. The cause was not known. Michael Puff was the owner and Carl Cocciolone the trainer.
The deaths, neither involving an accident, astounded at least two officials at the harness track in North Strabane Township.
“I haven’t seen this in the 20 years I’ve been around,” said Mike Jeannot, president of Meadows Racing at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino. “My understanding is we lose an average of three horses a year for different reasons.”
Kim Hankins, executive director of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, gave a lower number. “I’ve been here for six years, and we’ve had no more than five or 10 horses that either had to be put down or have died on the track,” Hankins said.
Hankins believes this double set of circumstances is almost unfathomable.
“I’ve been around racing all my life,” he said. “This is very, very unusual. They are competitive animals, and this does happen, but twice is so phenomenally coincidental. It’s unbelievable.”
Hankins said horses are more likely to die on thoroughbred tracks because of the way they are gated in that version of the sport. “There’s more pressure on each hoof. They have breakdowns much, much more often than (harness racing).”
The deaths did not result in injuries to any drivers, and no other horses were involved.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is investigating. Jeannot said department officials were at the site of the two autopsies on the aminals near Greensburg Tuesday.
Calls to the Agriculture Department and the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission were not returned.