Author: Nicholas Godfrey

Sighs of relief were probably heard from California to Calcutta last month when Santa Anita’s winter and spring meet, benighted and distended, finally drew to a close after six desperate months. After all, if they’re not racing, then it is hard for the death toll to rise any further, isn’t it? And let’s be frank: Santa Anita in particular, and US racing in general, could ill afford any further fatalities to add to the 30 since they opened their doors at Christmas at the iconic Sunshine State venue. The animal rights lobby always have racing in their rifle sights, and the direction of travel in terms of public opinion hardly looks favourable to the sport in jurisdictions far removed from California. However, such is the crisis at Santa Anita that the very future of the sport in the state is under intense scrutiny.

Not for the first time, it should be admitted, but in the battle for hearts and minds is impossible to win when the opposition can point to a sickening incidence of dead horses. Amid continuing public outcry, that’s why the California Horse Racing Board asked Santa Anita to suspend operations for its last seven days, a request the track rejected. With that in mind, the decision of the Breeders’ Cup to confirm Santa Anita as this year’s host site looks a hugely significant development. With Santa Anita under the heaviest of grey clouds, persistent rumour suggested Churchill Downs was about to step in; instead, California’s foremost racetrack will hold the event for the tenth time. Breeders’ Cup president Craig Fravel explained the decision, saying: “Foremost among the core values of the Breeders’ Cup are the safety and integrity of the competition and we hold ourselves, our host sites and our competitors, to the highest standards of both.

“It is clear that meaningful and effective reforms and best practices have been implemented in recent months at Santa Anita,” Fravel went on. “We fully embrace those reforms and will devote our time and energy in the coming months to further advance those efforts. We look forward to showing the world the best in Thoroughbred racing at one of its finest venues.” Be that as it may, surely it speaks volumes that the Breeders’ Cup board felt it necessary even to consider a transfer, and then to justify at great length its decision to maintain the status quo. In the current climate it looks a brave move, but probably the right call. Regardless of the practicalities involved, how many people have already booked non-transferable tickets to California?, moving the Breeders’ Cup away from Santa Anita would have been tantamount to saying the track is indeed too dangerous to be contemplated as a suitable venue for top level horse racing.

The beginning of the end, in other words. We’re not quite at that stage yet, but Santa Anita’s controversial winter and spring meet did not take its leave without a couple of unfortunate final headlines, notably when Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was told to ‘sling his hook’. The 73yo veteran, third on the all time list with 7,600+ career victories, had to vacate his Santa Anita stalls after his representative American Currency suffered a fatal injury during a workout. The gelding was the fourth horse trained by Hollendorfer to be killed this spring at Santa Anita; the other three included Battle Of Midway, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in 2017 and the highest profile horse to lose its life. Hollendorfer subsequently moved 46 horses to Los Alamitos ready for their current meet.

They seem more than happy to have him, and without knowing any further details of why the trainer was targeted, it does seem as if he is being used as something of a scapegoat. This is about more than one trainer. As such, the move looks kneejerk, rather like proroguing racing on the idiosyncratic downhill turf chute, which hadn’t offered any significant problem in previous years. But as soon as there was a single fatality at the wrong time, suddenly the downhill chute is deemed more dangerous than the rest of the track. Both moves seem to pander more to public perception than reflecting common sense. Hollendorfer is symptom rather than cause; ditto a death on the downhill chute, as unwelcome as it was. But something had to be done, or more pertinently, seen, to be done, in response to yet more equine fatalities.

Which is probably how we moved to last week’s piece in the New York Times, which has regularly painted racing in a harsh light in recent years. Now this august organ has weighed in with a lengthy, almost wholly unflattering investigation into the Santa Anita debacle. Performance enhancing drugs, milkshaking in particular, and injured horses being sent to the races (one with a broken ankle) were among the issues raised. Then, above all, came the profit motive, with the finger firmly pointed at track officials forcing trainers to run their horses too often in order to maintain field sizes and, as consequently, betting dollar. The newspaper offered an argument that they have simply been racing too often on the track at Santa Anita, which took over the dates formerly owned by the now defunct Hollywood Park.

The winter and spring meet at Santa Anita used to end in April, and racing did not resume until September after Del Mar. Now they are in action fully nine months of the year. Moreover, the weather has been disastrous, with an unusual amount of rain resulting in weeks without any turf racing. Yet the show must go on, the coffers must be filled, and so races carded for grass are either moved to the main track or replaced by entire cards of such dirt contests. Hence further wear and tear on a main track about which severe questions had already been raised. With this in mind, what happened after the departure in December of much respected track superintendent Dennis Moore, well known for a cautious approach when he had any safety reservations, begins to look like rather more than coincidence. Moore is still employed by Del Mar and Los Alamitos.

“Industry veterans said maintenance of the track slipped after he left,” said the Times, adding that Santa Anita ran 111 races on its main track when the surface was listed as either “muddy,” “sloppy” or “off,” compared to only 18 during the same period in 2018-19. Nevertheless, when racecourse experts (Moore among them) examined the surface midway through the meet, after the initial spate of fatalities, they found nothing amiss. Amid calls from state politicians to cease racing at Santa Anita, California now has the most stringent pre-race veterinary protocols in the country, which can only be regarded as a positive move; according to the New York Times, as many as 38 horses, a shockingly high number, were rejected as unfit to race during the track’s final week.

Among other measures, the whip rules are being examined, while permitted Lasix levels have been reduced by 50%; a wider coalition of major tracks have committed to phasing out the anti-bleeding medication beginning in 2020. Thus some very good may be coming out of the very bad. With a return to synthetic surfaces also up for discussion, there could be further startling developments to come, though critics of dirt racing would be advised to consider that asking the US to eradicate the surface would be like asking Britain and Ireland to outlaw jumps racing. As for Santa Anita, a wondrous place has endured the roughest of rides, and one can’t help but think racing in the Sunshine State is hanging by a slender thread. No one could be blamed for watching the Breeders’ Cup between their fingers from behind the armchair with everything firmly crossed. Then again, speaking personally I am well used to doing that. I love the Grand National.

Nicholas Godfrey
International Sportswriter

Breeders’ Cup 2019 confirmed for Santa Anita