Horse racing, seemingly at another crossroads every month, gets ready for the most important meeting of the year when Santa Anita opens its fall racing schedule Friday under intense scrutiny. It’s only a 23-day meeting, but it finishes Nov. 1-2 with more than $30 million in purses in the Breeders’ Cup.
“My mind-set is to get through this meet and make it the best meet we’ve ever had,” said Aidan Butler, the newly installed acting executive director of California racing for the Stronach Group, owners of Santa Anita and other tracks in the state and across the nation. “It’s pretty important not just to Santa Anita but the whole industry. So, no pressure there at all.”
Santa Anita is battling public perception issues as much as anything. The death of 30 horses during its winter/spring meeting brought national attention to the sport and calls from legislators to animal rights activists to shut down Santa Anita. It led to reforms in safety protocols and medication.
Southern California is currently on an unprecedented run of racing safety. There hasn’t been a racing fatality since June 9 when Truffalino died during a turf race at Santa Anita. Two short Los Alamitos thoroughbred meetings and the signature summer meeting at Del Mar have gone without a racing death.
Since June 9, there have been five training fatalities, four at Del Mar and one this week at Santa Anita. Two of the Del Mar deaths were the result of a collision, not a physical breakdown. By comparison, the New York tracks of Belmont, Saratoga and Finger Lakes have had seven racing and five training deaths in September, according to the New York equine death and breakdown database.
“I think it’s all behind us,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “I think we went into Del Mar feeling a little bit [of pressure]. Usually Del Mar is just a little relaxed, but I think everybody was on red alert. Now coming back here, I can see the focus is back on horse racing. What happened this winter took a lot of the fun out of the sport.”
It has been a year like none other for horse racing, starting with the six-month saga over the deaths at Santa Anita.
Then there was the first same-day disqualification in 145 years of a winning horse in the Kentucky Derby, which led to a series of lawsuits that are still being litigated.
Upon the death of the 30th horse at Santa Anita, Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was banned from all Stronach Group tracks, including Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields. It was Hollendorfer’s fourth death at Santa Anita, along with two at Golden Gate Fields. When Del Mar also barred Hollendorfer, he won the right to race there in court, but then lost the same privilege at Golden Gate Fields in a different ruling. His status at Santa Anita is still under discussion, although currently he is banned.
Recently it was reported by the New York Times that Triple Crown winner Justify tested positive for a banned substance after winning the 2018 Santa Anita Derby. It was subsequently reported by the Los Angeles Times that Justify was one of seven horses that tested positive, indicating it was a feed contamination issue. Most veterinarians believe the banned drug, scopolamine, found in the feed is not a performance enhancer.
Still, the national spotlight remains on Southern California for this meet.
“There have been a lot of changes and what we did, we did at a time of crisis,” Butler said. “It was done quickly. The luxury of time allows you to say maybe we were a little overzealous there or maybe we were a little under there. Now we think round two we’ll be even smarter about it.”
Santa Anita has adjusted its safety and medication protocols to approximate those of Del Mar.
The changes that occurred at Santa Anita in its offseason have mostly been to regain public confidence. Butler was installed as the new executive face of Santa Anita, and Craig Fravel, currently chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup, will become the Stronach Group’s chief executive of racing after the Nov. 1-2 event is held.
The dirt course was dug up and new drainage was put in, there is a new videoboard and the widely ignored “roulette” bet has been dumped. In addition, the 6 1/2-furlong downhill turf course will be closed this meeting.
The opening weekend is the best racing until the Breeders’ Cup. There are two Grade 1 races for 2-year-olds Friday. The last five winners of the American Pharoah Stakes, formerly known as the Front Runner, have run in the Kentucky Derby, two of them winning it — American Pharoah and Nyquist.
The Awesome Again Stakes, headed by McKinzie, the top-rated horse in the country, will highlight Saturday. The race is a major prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Zenyatta Stakes, with the winner getting an automatic entry into the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, the top race for fillies and mares, is Sunday.
Santa Anita is banking on the idea that its new slogan — “Transforming Tradition” — will remind people of racing’s better times at the track.
“There is so much history here,” Baffert said. “When you win a race here it means so much. This is the last of the tracks that has this kind of setting.”