After avoiding more disaster, Santa Anita fall meet to begin Friday

Horses race at Santa Anita Park in March.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Aidan Butler was brought from his comfortable job as chief strategy officer of the Stronach Group to Santa Anita at the height of the horse fatality crisis last spring to run the troubled property. Since then, the state’s regulatory board asked Santa Anita to shut down because of horse deaths, a safe Breeders’ Cup ended with a death in the last furlong of the last race, a pandemic shut down the track, and last week an encroaching fire delayed the opening of its autumn meet.

“The only thing that hasn’t happened is a zombie apocalypse,” Butler said without a hint of seriousness. “But I have a bunch of stakes for when it does.”

The stakes that Butler more likely will be concerned with this weekend, starting Friday, are the 12 stakes races — 10 graded and seven with a winner’s free pass to the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland on Nov. 6-7. Saturday is the meet’s centerpiece of racing with seven stakes, including three Grade 1s.

The meet, originally scheduled for 20 days, has been reduced to six three-day weeks, a result of last weekend’s cancellation because of the Bobcat Fire and bad air quality associated with it.


Belmont Stakes winner Tiz The Law won’t run in the Preakness, so final Triple Crown leg won’t feature a rematch with Kentucky Derby winner Authentic.

The track will have very similar pandemic protocols as its last meeting — which concluded June 21 — although the jockey confinement trailers are gone. Fans will not be allowed, but a limited number of owners will be able to watch their horses on days they run.

“We’ve learned a lot about this not just by our experience, but tracks throughout the country, including Del Mar,” Butler said. “You can accomplish a lot with distancing, we’re still doing a lot of testing, and we’ve also gone more high tech with digital badges.

“It seems that everyone fancies themselves as infectious disease experts nowadays, so we’re sticking with the advice and guidance of the L.A. County Health Department. That’s where we are focused.”

Santa Anita has undergone unprecedented change not just because of the coronavirus but also by industry forces that have contracted aspects of the sport. All year, the track has been running three-day weeks, down from the usual four, in large part because of a horse population that has shrunk to around 2,400.

Currently there are 1,507 horses at Santa Anita, 602 at Los Alamitos and 296 at San Luis Rey Downs. The last few years, the horse population has been between 2,800 and 3,000.

“For starters, the foal crops are down,” Butler said. “And people are not moving around as much since the pandemic. I don’t know if that means horses aren’t coming back once they go elsewhere or it’s just people not traveling like they used to.”

Butler points to the resiliency of the track and how the sport continues to run during the health crisis.

“I think it showed something that with all that’s gone on, the pandemic, the fire, we’re still here,” Butler said. “This is a sport that can run through adversity. We’ve refocused all our efforts on safety. The general public sees we’re doing the right thing. The economy needs more stories like this.”

Santa Anita is making other changes that won’t take effect this meeting. It is adding a turf chute that will allow it to run 6- and 6½-furlong races. Those would replace races that used to be run on the downhill turf course, which is closed to sprint racing. Sod is expected to be laid next week with the hopes it will be ready for the marathon winter/spring meeting, which starts Dec. 26.

Butler also says a synthetic course is being discussed, at the very least for training and possibly for racing, especially if races are taken off the turf because of weather. However, he didn’t see the dirt course going away any time soon and offered no date for a synthetic surface to be added.

Southern California racing got a boost when locally based Authentic won the Kentucky Derby at the beginning of the month. n Saturday, Maximum Security, arguably the best horse currently racing, runs in the Grade 1 $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes.

With the Bobcat fire affecting nearby communities, Santa Anita is suspending the opening of its fall racing season until Sept. 25.

The star-crossed Maximum Security finished first in last year’s Kentucky Derby but was disqualified for interference. He also won the $20-million Saudi Cup earlier this year, but that purse is being held up because the colt’s trainer, Jason Servis, is under federal indictment for giving horses performance-enhancing drugs. No evidence has been presented that Maximum Security received illegal drugs.

The horse has been moved to the barn of Authentic’s trainer Bob Baffert, who also has Improbable in the Awesome Again Stakes. Improbable won his last two races, both Grade 1s. Maximum Security is the 3-5 favorite with Improbable at 8-5. It will be Maximum Security’s first race at Santa Anita.

The other big Saturday races include the American Pharoah for 2-year-old colts and Chandelier Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Past winners of the colt race include Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, when it was called the FrontRunner, and Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist.