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Santa Anita breathes a sigh of relief after no horses die on first day back

Santa Anita racetrack is due to reopen Friday with new restrictions on whip use and medications. It's uncertain whether the new rules will help stem a string of recent horse deaths at the track.

Seven horses draped in brightly colored silks thunder across the shadow of the splendid San Gabriel Mountains in a breathtaking combination of beauty and speed.

The small crowd is silent.

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“I’m holding my breath,’’ says race-goer B.J. Ravitz.

It’s the first race at Santa Anita Park in nearly a month, a close contest, powerful animals dueling down the stretch, dirt flying, jockeys bobbing, high drama.

There are few cheers in a sea of stares.

“Everyone is worried about the horses,’’ said Abe Ravitz, the husband of B.J. “All I’m thinking is, if anything untoward happens today …”

The race ends clean, all seven horses crossing the finish line, and only then is there audible applause from the crowd, a reaction seemingly generated by the one outcome that everyone here is betting on.

No horse died.

“OK,” said racegoer Frank Reynoso, taking a deep breath. “That’s one.’’

It was that kind of a tightrope afternoon Friday as Santa Anita opened its doors for the first time since March 5, after 22 horses died in a little more than two months of its winter/spring meet, a 214% increase from the same span the year before.

The Stronach Group, owners of the track, has since made minor modifications to a track that was badly compromised with the unseasonably rainy winter weather. They also have revised medication policies and proposed prohibiting jockeys from using the whip unless for safety reasons.

But because there was no clear reason for the deaths, there could be no clear answers. That’s why so many people showed up at the track Friday with nerves jangling and fingers crossed.

For now, there is relief. In eight races, there were no fatalities, which brought a giant collective sigh. But everyone agrees that the healing of what’s arguably Southern California’s most picturesque sporting venue is just beginning.

“This is going to take a while,’’ said horse owner Samantha Siegel, sitting in a near-empty terrace section. “The public is probably a little shell-shocked at what’s going on. We’ve gotten a lot of bad exposure from everywhere. We’re going to need to go a long time without having something horrible happen.’’

The crowd was reminded of the trouble before even entering the track, as several dozen protesters stood on a grassy area outside the front gate waving signs and chanting.

“You say the track was safe to use but nothing’s changed, you bet, they lose,’’ they sang.

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One of the signs read, “Stop Killing Horses.’’ One of the protesters was dressed in a horse’s head, and the message was clear.

“Horse racing needs to be abolished’’ said Heather Hamza, leading what she called a group of concerned citizens backed by the group known as Horseracing Wrongs. ‘’The world is watching this track. Every horse that is killed here will make big headlines. We need to be part of those headlines because we’re telling them to stop it.”

Hamza and her group urged the race-goers to look beyond the beauty of the sport.

‘’When you’re watching a horse race, it’s magnificent, it’s beautiful, it’s breathtaking,’’ she said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s not a dark, dirty, gritty underbelly behind it.’’

Once inside, fans were met with the usual promising announcements — “Welcome to Santa Anita Park! The track is fast and the turf course is firm!” — and folks cheered the return of ailing trumpeter Jay Cohen. But it wasn’t the same.

While the typically loud racetrack cheering returned in later races, there was a pall over the place as everyone tried to adjust.

“We’re saddened by everything that has happened,’’ said Reynoso, a retiree. “The sport is so great, the horses are so beautiful, it’s been hard to see.’’

Reynoso paused and added, “But they’re going to race whether we’re here or not, and we love it here, so we’re coming.’’

In the first race, Reynoso bet on a horse named Ride Out The Storm.

“That could be a great name for what could happen here, right?’’ he said.

The horse finished fifth, 16 1/4 lengths behind Discrete Stevie B, ridden by jockey Aaron T. Gryder, who later said he was just glad to be back.

“I love getting on the horse, the feeling that I get, becoming one with them, the fast speed, communicating with them, I love it all,’’ Gryder said. “It’s unfortunate what happened, but they are not only taking care of the things that might be wrong, but they’re being proactive so that other things can’t occur.’’

Gryder was asked if he was holding his breath for his horse’s health. He said no, implying that it would be impossible to ride with death on your mind.

“That’s not something that can be thought about,’’ he said. “I want only the best for these animals. They’ve given me the best in my life.’’

Gryder added, “Everybody wants the same thing — horsemen, jockeys, trainers, backside, management. Everybody cares most about the safety of horse and riders.’’

Doug O’Neill, a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, echoed that sentiment from his suite.

“For the first time in my more than 30 years here, I saw today where the majority of horseman are on the same team rooting for each other’s horses to compete well and come back safe,’’ he said. “We just want horses to be safe, and we’re taking it one race at a time.’’

Even after the eight races had gone off safely, Santa Anita’s boss agreed it had been a difficult day

“It’s hard to get excited about being back when we had such a bad run of catastrophic injuries,’’ said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for The Stronach Group. “You have to really look at yourself and say, are we doing the right thing, how can we get it better, how can we improve it?’’

He acknowledged the somber atmosphere was not only expected but almost by design.

“It was kind of a quiet introductory,’’ he said. “It wasn’t like we went out and marketed and said, ‘C’mon on back here.’”

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So, once again, they’re off and running at Santa Anita. But to where, who knows?

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