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Santa Anita opens main track, and it looks like business as usual

Track moving forward

It was 5:15 a.m. Wednesday and still mostly dark at Santa Anita as trainer John Shirreffs watched horses run the first timed workouts on the main track since a suspension of racing last week.

He was comfortable with the situation and the condition of the track. "We had a lot of bad weather," Shirreffs said. "Now that it's dried out, it looks real good."

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Twenty-one horse fatalities since the start of the winter meeting on Dec. 26 prompted track officials to suspend racing and workouts on the main track on March 5.

After repeated inspections and dirt sampling, the re-hiring of track consultant Dennis Moore and enhanced safety protocols, Santa Anita is trying to move toward a resumption of racing on March 22.

In all, 196 horses safely worked out at the track on Wednesday, according to a Santa Anita spokesman — 112 over the main track and 84 over the training track, a softer course where there has yet to be a fatal injury during the winter/spring meet.

"It felt fine. It felt safe," jockey Joe Talamo said after working a horse on the main track.

The red light and siren that goes off during training in case of an emergency sounded twice after two different horses got loose without riders. They were corralled without incident. Retired jockey Alex Solis had been thrown off one of the horses but immediately jumped back up.

No definitive reason for the rash of horse fatalities has been identified, but the horsemen seem to agree that the suspension needed to happen.

"The break helped get everything aligned," trainer Brian Koriner said.

Among the changes instituted by Santa Anita are trainers being required to give 24-hour notice on workout requests so that veterinarians can review horses in advance and spot possible concerns.

Twenty-two horses have died at Santa Anita Park since Dec. 26. Experts are trying to figure out why.

"Everybody was up in arms at first," Jim Cassidy, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers Assn., said of the new protocol. "Then we explained it and everybody is on board now."

Said Shirreffs: "It makes it a little bit more difficult, but if you can identify a horse that may [require closer inspection], it's good to identify them ahead of time."

Santa Anita had been helping pay for horses to train at Los Alamitos and San Luis Rey Downs in north San Diego county while the track was shut down to workouts. The main track became available for jogging and galloping on Monday and Tuesday.

On Wednesday, training on the main track went without incident in the first major step toward a return to racing. Shirreffs, who used to train retired fan favorite Zenyatta, was out there, but many of the top trainers who work at Santa Anita were in Ocala, Fla., for a horse sale.

The big question going forward is what to do when it rains. The track has been sealed in the past, making the surface harder on horses.

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"When it's not sealed, it has a little cushion," Shirreffs said. "That cushion slows the foot before it gets to the bottom. When it's sealed, it doesn't have that cushion."

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