The Breeders’ Cup gave Santa Anita some positive news and an affirmation of its reform measures on Thursday when the board agreed to keep the event at the Arcadia track.
Craig Fravel, president and chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup, confirmed the action to the Los Angeles Times and an announcement was made later Thursday.
The decision came amid safety concerns about the Santa Anita courses after 30 horses died either racing or training during a meet that started Dec. 26 and ended June 23. Racing during that span was limited because 24 race dates were canceled due to a combination of circumstances, including the deaths and a horse population that was shrinking for various additional reasons.
Among the people addressing Thursday’s meeting at the group’s headquarters in Lexington, Ky., were Belinda Stronach, president and chief executive of the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park; and Dionne Benson, the newly appointed chief veterinary officer for the Stronach Group.
The executives “gave us a full perspective on what actions they have taken and a full perspective on what other measures they plan to take,” Fravel said.
Fravel would not discuss the particulars of the meeting or tenor of the discussions.
One concern was that talk of horse and jockey safety, rather than top-flight racing, would drive the narrative during the Breeders’ Cup.
“We’ve spent a lot of time watching these events and the number of safety reforms since the track reopened,” Fravel said. “We feel very comfortable and have been reassured that the track is performing very safely.”
This will be Santa Anita’s record 10th time hosting the event, scheduled for Nov. 1-2.
Had the event been moved, the most likely landing spot was Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs, however, has a higher horse mortality rate than Santa Anita. The Louisville track averaged 2.73 deaths per 1,000 starts last year. Santa Anita was 2.04. The national average was 1.68.
Nine of the 14 members of the Breeders’ Cup board are from Kentucky. One of the members, Mike Rogers, president of the racing division of the Stronach Group, recuses himself from voting on measures in which a Stronach track, such as Santa Anita, is involved.
The Breeders’ Cup will be conducted with the “house rules” that the Stronach Group recently instituted to improve safety measures at Santa Anita, hoping to regain public trust. Among those is a reduction in the use of race-day Lasix, a drug to treat bleeding from the lungs.
“All of the rules approved by the TOC [Thoroughbred Owners of California], Santa Anita and CHRB [California Horse Racing Board], such as dosage, will be in effect,” Fravel said. “It’s quite consistent with how our events will be conducted.”
The track also heightened its veterinary protocols, increasing the presence of pre-race screening. The Breeders’ Cup will even heighten the protocols.
“We will have 14 veterinarians on site for the week and 20 there for the two days of the event,” Fravel said. “No stone will be unturned.”
The California Horse Racing Board recently created a five-person “super-panel” of stewards, veterinarians and horsemen to evaluate a horse’s fitness to run in a race. One “no” vote disqualifies a horse. During the final six days of racing at Santa Anita, 38 horses were disqualified.
Fravel said the Breeders’ Cup would be glad to participate in any measures that would make the racing safer.
As for the ability of Jerry Hollendorfer to run horses at the Breeders’ Cup, a final decision will be made later. The Hall of Fame trainer was banished from all Stronach tracks last weekend after a fourth horse under his care died at Santa Anita. Two of his horses also died at Golden Gate Fields late last year.
“The entry process is controlled by the Breeders’ Cup, and Santa Anita has acknowledged that,” Fravel said. “We will take a look at all the relevant factors when we take pre-entries. But it’s a Breeders’ Cup decision.”
If the decision on where the Breeders’ Cup would be held had gone against Santa Anita, it would have been a crushing blow, indicating a lack of confidence in the historic track.