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Santa Anita sees positives from ‘hellish’ 2020 horse racing season

Grooms wearing face masks lead horses to the paddock at Santa Anita Park.
Santa Anita’s 2020 season began with a renewed focus on horse safety. It ended with no fans in attendance and worries about the coronavirus.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The end of Santa Anita’s signature winter/spring meeting on Sunday wasn’t met with so much sadness as it was relief.

Santa Anita started the season worried about horse safety and finished the meeting with equal concerns about equine and human safety. It’s life in a pandemic.

The track had a decrease of 17.4% in handles from all sources off of last year, a time when the track was closed for three weeks because of horse safety concerns. On the plus side it cut its horse fatalities in half from 30 to 15, although there was much less racing.

“It’s been a tough meeting, for sure,” said Aidan Butler, acting executive director of California racing for The Stronach Group. “But, all in all, there have been a lot of positives, primarily in showing what Santa Anita has done and what it stands for. But there is nothing that can’t be improved on.”

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Last year all the focus was on the 30 horse deaths during this meeting and TSG implemented a series of safety and medication reforms in the hopes of mitigating a problem that had become a national scandal. This year things have quieted down. There have been five racing deaths and 10 training deaths.

Strictly Biz, a 4-year-old colt, sustained a knee fracture during a race and was euthanized, becoming Santa Anita’s 15th fatality of the meeting.

“Horse deaths have never been acceptable,” Butler said. “But people [at Santa Anita] really made it a mission to make sure it wasn’t acceptable. A lot of things that [Stronach chief executive Belinda Stronach] put on the list have been done, such as reform on Lasix, transparency and shock-wave therapy. But there is much work to do and I’m confident we can improve on it.”

The Equine Injury Database, which compiles statistics nationally, last year gave Santa Anita a rating of 3.01 deaths for every 1,000 starts, a very high number that also includes the one-month fall meeting. This meeting has a rating of 1.26, although metrics in this database do not include training deaths.

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One area that has plagued all of California racing is the shrinking horse population. Del Mar, which once ran six days a week, will have three days of racing in the upcoming summer meeting, although with added days and longer programs than last year when the track ran five days. It is only supposed to lose a handful of races.

Butler, despite calling this a “hellish” year and saying Santa Anita was deep in the red financially, said that there was no reason to believe the track is in trouble or in danger of going away.

“We have a lot of support from our corporate office, which is really committed to racing,” Butler said. “If we had been shut down indefinitely it might have been different.”

Tiz The Law, the race’s only Grade 1 winner, easily prevails as the Belmont Stakes kicks off the Triple Crown in a coronavirus-altered 2020 calendar.

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Last year, the track did $954,257,681 in all sources wagering, with the track receiving a small percentage of that revenue. This year, which started Dec. 26, the track has a partial number of $787,808,109 after Sunday. Santa Anita will get a small amount of additional revenue through simulcast wagering for two more days and non-commingled mutuel handle from places such as Mexico, which won’t be counted for days.

The track had 81 racing programs last year during this meeting with 734 races with 5,404 starters for an average of 7.4 a race. This year, there were 60 racing programs with 527 races with 3,950 starters for an average of 7.5 a race.

“The outside world is in such pain,” Butler said. “I’ve had so many friends who have lost their businesses and their savings. Normally I would be depressed. But, I’m so happy we were able to get it back and run. There are people a lot worse off than us.”

Butler said there are no major changes planned before the track returns in the fall except the normal renovations to the turf and dirt track surfaces.

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Now, Santa Anita will hand off the racing for two weeks before it goes to Del Mar for the summer.

“What we don’t want to have is have Santa Anita to be a petri dish where we are passing along problems,” Butler said. “If this pandemic continues, it’s coming back here in September.”


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