Santa Anita took the first step of putting the turmoil of 2019 behind it Saturday with safe racing on a picture-perfect day before an enthusiastic crowd on the opening day of its winter-spring meeting.
The fate of the sport in California could be in the hands of Southern California’s most-raced facility after a year in which the 85-year-old track was better known for horse fatalities than the signature racing that once attracted crowds of 50,000 or more on weekends.
The 11-race card drew a crowd of 35,085 and put end-of-year exclamation points on the winners of the seven stakes races.
“It was a really good day,” said Aidan Butler, the top executive at Santa Anita. “Obviously, all the horses got around safe and we had a really good crowd. The weather cooperated and then there were the stories that make this industry amazing.”
The thread that ran through the day was 54-year-old jockey Mike Smith, who won four of the seven stakes races. When he won with Omaha Beach in the Malibu Stakes, it was his 217th Grade 1 stakes win, passing Jerry Bailey.
“A great day would have just been winning with Omaha Beach,” Smith said. “To tie Jerry and then get ahead of him on Omaha Beach [was incredible]. I can’t even describe it. I get all choked up.”
Omaha Beach, the Kentucky Derby favorite before scratching a few days before the race, was the star of the day, but it was Smith riding Hard Not To Love in her La Brea Stakes victory that was the feel-good story. The 3-year-old filly has only one eye. As a yearling, she contracted an infection in her left eye and about a month later it was removed.
“She only has one eye and when she gets nervous, she tends to spin around to see,” trainer John Shirreffs said.
Smith also rode Mirth to victory in the Robert J. Frankel Stakes and won the Lady Of Shamrock Stakes as a pick-up rider. He was named on the mount Saturday when Flavien Prat came down with the flu and was too sick to ride.
The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and four other race tracks, became aggressive in trying to reimagine the sport as one that is all about horse and rider safety. It came in the shadow of 30 horses dying in its winter-spring meet that concluded in June.
With all the medication changes and veterinary oversight put in place before the short fall meeting, the track still had seven more fatalities in racing and training during that meet.
Since Nov. 3, the day after the fall meeting closed, the track has had 4,827 timed workouts without a fatality, an unofficial total compiled by the Los Angeles Times. Many horses stay at Santa Anita during the short fall Del Mar meeting and still train in Arcadia, which is why the track doesn’t close while there is no racing.
However, there was a fatality Dec. 26 when the track was closed to workouts but open for jogging and galloping. Truest Reward, a 3-year-old gelding, broke his left front leg on the training track, considered the safest surface. He was winless in four starts and trained by Doug O’Neill.
Saturday’s opening day went very well by most accounts. The specter of what happened last racing year lingered but was peppered with optimism.
“We’re going to be really cautious in how we handle the weather,” said Kosta Hronis, who along with his brother Pete won the Eclipse Award for owners of the year. “The fact that they built in 12 days off [at the track’s discretion.] They can use them wisely and if we’re having a bad day , we just park for the day. Hopefully this is the way to go.
“It’s a tough situation. I hope we all learned by it . We’re looking forward to the future.”
Hronis’ 6-year-old horse, Gift Box, was the repeat champion in the San Antonio Stakes.
The one-eyed Hard Not To Love is partly owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, and its managing partner, Terry Finley, noted the challenge the industry has in front it.
“I thought it’s 2020, so let’s hit the restart button,” Finley said. “We have to do it as an industry and as individuals day after day after day. If we do that, the cumulative effect is, at the end of 2020, that our industry is going to be better and we’ll build on it. I think we have a lot to look forward to as an industry.”
Santa Anita has 57 racing days left starting Sunday and ending June 21.
“We had to regroup and look at everything that went on [this year],” said Butler, who wouldn’t talk about the day until after every horse in the last race was unsaddled. “We all know we’re doing the right thing. I see it every single day in the sheer effort everyone is putting in. Today was a little bit of a payoff for that run.”
Santa Anita runs 10 more races Sunday. And the anxiety will start all over again.