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Santa Anita racing shut down by health department amid coronavirus outbreak

SANTA ANITA
Fans had already been banished from Santa Anita Park before Friday’s shutdown of live racing.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images)

Thoroughbred racing at Santa Anita Park was shut down shortly before its first post Friday by the Los Angeles County Health Department in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move came after a frantic effort by the Arcadia track to stay open for racing before no crowds with only essential personnel on site. No return date was announced.

“We’re going to continue training and are in constant dialogue with the health department to see if there is anything we can do,” said Aidan Butler, acting executive director of California racing for the Stronach Group. “The health department feels for our plight, and we look forward to working with them to find a solution that is best for everyone.”

The series of events that culminated in the closure started Wednesday morning when an environmental health specialist from the health department deemed that the track should be shut down.

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“After review by our Department, live racing of the horses has been deemed a non-essential operation,” it said in a memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times. “Horse racing may not continue per the Health Officer Order.”

On Thursday, Butler emailed Edward Morrissey, the acting chief of the Health Services Department, to plead the case for Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, its sister track in Northern California, to remain open. Golden Gate has not closed.

The California Horse Racing Board met by teleconference Thursday and did not act on the status of Santa Anita despite pleas by animal-rights activists to close the track in light of the pandemic. Activists had already been calling for the track to close for almost a year because of horse fatalities, which have been greatly reduced this year.

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The CHRB telegraphed what was to come in a few hours Friday morning when it sent out a news release saying: “In this time of an extraordinary health crisis and pandemic, the [CHRB] is relying on state, county and local health authorities to determine whether horse racing is deemed essential for exemption from shelter-in-place orders issued by those authorities.”

L.A. County followed through and enforced its order Friday.

According to a health department news release Friday, there have been six positive tests in Arcadia for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. There are no known positives from track personnel.

A look at athletes, coaches and others in the sports world who have tested positive of the coronavirus.

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The arguments made by Butler in his email to Morrissey on Thursday were similar to those made by executives of the Stronach Group, Del Mar and the Thoroughbred Owners of California to the CHRB on March 20.

“The majority of the personnel to take care of the horses are already on-site,” said the letter, which was obtained by The Times through the California Public Records Act. “There are currently over 1,000 people housed in the dormitories and rooms in the Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields stable areas which total well over 100 acres of property. The number of essential personnel required to race in the afternoon is far less than that required to safely maintain the health and welfare or the horses in the morning.

“… We are facing a crisis that could lead to these horses being abandoned throughout the state and more than 1,000 people homeless.”

Santa Anita and Golden Gate were donating all their profits to those affected by the coronavirus.

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Horse racing was the last betting sport that was able to continue in the wake of professional leagues and games shutting down. There was even the thought that the sport would benefit because gamblers had no other sport on which to bet. However, the additional money bet did not replace the wagering that was lost when there was no on-track attendance or state inter-track wagering.

“No one really thought this would be a great windfall,” said Craig Fravel, chief executive for racing at the Stronach Group, before learning of the closure. “I think anybody who is looking at it from that standpoint is missing the big picture. What we’re trying to do is sustain the ecosystem in a responsible manner. … We want to make sure people are following all the protocols while giving them an opportunity to pay their bills.”

The fear is that with no racing at Santa Anita, owners could move their horses to the few remaining jurisdictions that were running and never return to California, causing a potential collapse of the industry in the state. Thoroughbred racing is continuing at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs in Florida and at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.

Racing will continue in California for now at Golden Gate Fields, Los Alamitos in Orange County and Cal Expo, the only harness track operating in the country.

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