Saturday is the biggest day of the year for the 85-year-old Santa Anita track, not just in terms of the racing, but also its survival.
Talk would normally be about who will emerge from the Santa Anita Derby to join the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Four of the last five winners have been stabled in Southern California and two were victorious there after winning the Santa Anita Derby.
The talk will remain steadfast on the 23 horse fatalities since Dec. 26. There were six deaths between Jan. 18-25, and six more between Feb. 17-25. As the public pressure to shut down Santa Anita’s race meet has grown, the fatality rate has dropped.
There has been one fatality in the last 22 days of training and five days of racing. Arms Runner was euthanized after injuring its right front leg on Sunday during a 6 ½ furlong turf race down the hill. Santa Anita has taken all races this week off the unique hillside course, which has an 80-foot dirt crossover entering the stretch.
The 22-day stretch has included 2,863 timed workouts and 357 race starts, for a total of 3,220. Still, people in and out of racing agree the tolerance for racing deaths remains at zero.
Animal rights groups, politicians, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and the media have called for a halt to racing until an investigation can be conducted and answers discovered. The California Horse Racing Board and the L.A. County District Attorney have investigators looking into the deaths.
“I’m concerned with the publicity we are getting when you come out here and see all these cameras,” trainer Bob Baffert said earlier in the week. “When we had [Triple Crown winners] American Pharoah and Justify, I would have loved to see five cameras out here to cover him before he went to the Derby.
“Everywhere I go, I have to explain myself. ‘Hey, what’s going on out there?’ Well, we’re just having a bad roll. But it’s going to get better. … It can happen to anyone. Everybody is feeling like we’re under the gun, but we need to feel like we’re under the gun. Double check. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. I feel pretty good we’ll get through this. We need to get to Saturday and have a wonderful day.”
There are seven stakes races Saturday, five of them graded (a status given to superior races) and three are Grade 1 (the very best races).
Baffert, who has spent a fair amount of time in front of the camera talking about the crisis, is happy when asked to actually talk about the racing and his horses.
He has the top two favorites in the $1-million Santa Anita Derby, a race in which the the winner and runner-up qualify for the Kentucky Derby based on a weighted points system. Game Winner, who has already qualified with 45 points, is the 4-5 top choice and Roadster at 5-2.
Getting to this point has also been affected. Game Winner was originally scheduled to run in the San Felipe at Santa Anita until racing was suspended and the race was canceled. Instead, he and stablemate Improbable were shipped to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas a week later and both suffered their first defeat, finishing second in separate divisions of the Rebel Stakes. Improbable will run next week in the Arkansas Derby.
“I was really happy with the race,” Baffert said of Game Winner in the Rebel. “He made a very gallant run at [winner] Omaha Beach [to lose by a nose]. He looks really good training here. So, I’m really looking forward to this weekend.
Leading up to the Kentucky Derby, trainers generally use four weeks spacing between races. Justify won off of four, Always Dreaming and Nyquist off of five and American Pharoah off of three.
Baffert’s other horse, Roadster, was his top 2-year-old last year before a breathing issue comprised his running and he was given a long rest. He needs at least a second-place finish to make the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.
Also given a shot is Instagrand, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, after winning his first two races by a combined 20-plus lengths, but he looked flat with a third place in the Gotham Stakes in New York.
The other big races on the card are the $400,000 Santa Anita Oaks for 3-year-old fillies and the $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap.
Each race will have a winner, that much is sure. The track will only win if every horse makes it back to the barn safely.