Author: Michele MacDonald
After months of nightmare headlines about horse fatalities at Santa Anita Park that have sparked a national uproar in the United States, directors of Breeders’ Cup Ltd. took a unanimous stand on June 27 to stick with plans to conduct their annual championship event at the California racetrack this year. The decision followed Santa Anita’s controversial action to ban Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who ranks third all time among American trainers in career wins, after four horses under his care died at the track, as well as the institution of a number of safety and welfare measures. “We fully embrace those safety 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,” Breeders’ Cup President Craig Fravel declared. What will happen with the career of Hollendorfer, who has trained champions and Breeders’ Cup winners or placegetters such as Songbird and Blind Luck, remains to be seen. The New York Racing Association first welcomed the trainer at its tracks but suddenly reversed course on June 29 and said it would not accept entries of horses trained by him. While the actions against Hollendorfer were stunning as they were taken without explanation other than the notation that four of his trainees had died at Santa Anita, certainly seriously unfortunate events but not without similar precedent among other high profile trainer, the Breeders’ Cup decision seemed to be generally welcomed.
Soon after the affirmation of Santa Anita was announced regarding Breeders’ Cup’s two day, 14 race event offering $30 million in purses and awards, a number of other racing organisations closed ranks in support, including past championship hosts Keeneland and Del Mar. “California regulators, racetrack operators, owners and horsemen have worked together to institute significant and effective reforms and we will lend our assistance in all capacities to ensure this year’s Breeders’ Cup event is a rousing success,” said National Thoroughbred Racing Association President Alex Waldrop. Santa Anita will be hosting the Breeders’ Cup for the tenth time, more than any other track, after directors opted not to switch to another venue, with the leading candidate having been Churchill Downs, which conducted the Cup races in 2018.
Regrettably for the sport in America, the focus on equine deaths led to the revelation that Churchill Downs has a worse record than Santa Anita. And with the conflagration over the sport’s fatalities that has erupted in both traditional and social media, it’s not likely this topic will be retreating from view anytime soon. Published reports indicated that Churchill had 2.73 equine deaths per 1,000 starts in 2018, compared with 2.04 deaths at Santa Anita. The national average was 1.68 fatalities per 1,000 starts. There had been little context provided during the initial turmoil over horse deaths at Santa Anita, which was sparked primarily by one journalist’s continued tweeting of a grim count of the number that had died. Of course, any and all of the deaths generate feelings of abhorrence. Initially, torrential winter rains were blamed for having changed the consistency of Santa Anita’s dirt track, but the deaths included heart attack victims in addition to breakdowns on the turf and training tracks during morning exercise.
Among the horses lost were Battle of Midway, who won the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar and who, ironically, had been returned to training after proving subfertile in one season at stud. The son of Smart Strike suffered a fatal injury while training under Hollendorfer’s care in February, when he had been expected to be one of the strongest American challengers for the Dubai World Cup. In a series of responses to the deaths and the public outcry, Santa Anita made changes to its safety protocols. Track officials described new rules, including significant changes in medication standards, as measures that ‘modernise the sport of horse racing and provide the strongest medication regulations in the United States’.
Beginning in late March, medication rules at Santa Anita were ‘consistent with, or more restrictive than, the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities standards, which are the world’s benchmark for equine safety and welfare’, they said. While the diuretic Lasix was still permitted, it was only allowed at a maximum of 50% of previous levels. Racing groups in California also agreed that horses born in 2018 or later would race in the future with no race day medications, including Lasix. Belinda Stronach, chairman of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and other tracks including Gulfstream Park, described the changes as having made Santa Anita the national leader in the health and safety of horse and human athletes in racing.
However, some of the moves, including rules on Lasix, probably have also served to blur public understanding since the medication was not cited as a factor in the fatalities. Nonetheless, following institution of the new rules, including safety inspections of horses, Santa Anita reported that there had been a 58% decrease in the number of fatalities during racing and an approximately 80% decline during training. The incident rate under the new rules was 1.86 deaths per 1,000 starters in racing and about 0.19 per 1,000 training sessions including both timed work and routine gallops, according to the track. “Even with these significant improvements, The Stronach Group and Santa Anita Park will continue, each and every day, to push for additional improvements and reforms to modernise our sport,” officials said in a public statement released following the Breeders’ Cup decision.
Undoubtedly, there was risk in whatever move Breeders’ Cup opted to make. Not only had there been significant investment in staging the event at Santa Anita, including ticket sales, but when the statistics involving Churchill Downs were reported, then that location also could be seriously questioned with inevitable fallout ensuing. The real problem racing faces remains: Having to explain injuries and fatalities to a contemporary public largely unfamiliar with horses and their inherent fragility even when just turned out in a paddock or kept in stables. No matter how many safety precautions are taken, injuries will continue around the world, just as they occur in all human sports. In this incendiary, media fuelled epoch, it can now be expected that any incidents at Breeders’ Cup, during which some high profile breakdowns have occurred in the past, at times involving top level horses with many fans, will be magnified as never before.
Therefore, when the championship is held on November 1-2, there will be far more on the line than just the prizemoney and bonuses for owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys. If all goes flawlessly, racing’s image in North America could regain some luster. On the other hand, if there is any kind of life threatening incident, the result for racing could also be catastrophic. US Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and other state political figures already have jumped into this fray, calling for the suspension of racing at Santa Anita prior to the end of the meet in June and thus indicating they would be in favour of shutting down the sport unless persuaded otherwise. What happens in California is important to the world as the state has traditionally conducted about one third of America’s best racing, and, in turn, America is the world leader by races conducted and by the number of Thoroughbred horses bred annually. So, the first two days of November will be pivotal. The world will be watching.
Award Winning International Journalist