June 30, 2019

Whicker: Here’s how Santa Anita and horse racing can be turned around

By anaheimsigns

Where are you, American Pharoah? Zenyatta? California Chrome?

Without a folkloric champion on the premises in November, the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita will undergo the most ominous death watch since the days of Gary Gilmore.

Santa Anita did at least retain the world championship of horse racing Thursday, primarily because there wasn’t a palatable alternative for the Breeders’ except Churchill Downs, which is a killing field of its own.

For the Great Race Place, this is a reprieve. No one can collate the factors behind 30 racing deaths this year, and no one thinks we’ll have a similarly drenching winter anytime soon.

But regulars at Santa Anita don’t feel the magic anymore, for various reasons. Some of the problems are traced to a declining sport, some are Santa Anita-specific.

A few areas:

Government regulation

It would eliminate the state-to-state discrepancies. When the NFL saw there was a problem with the gridiron in Mexico City last year, it quickly moved the Rams-Chiefs game to the Coliseum, at great hassle. There is no such national controlling authority in horse racing.

Instead of relying on one track superintendent, an agency could form a track team that would examine conditions nationally.

Gary Stevens and D. Wayne Lukas come to mind as natural thoroughbred “czars.”

The track

When the rains came, Santa Anita sealed its track. Thus it wound up with a deep track and a hard base. Even the exercise riders found it tiring.

The depth may explain why the shoulder injuries, near the end of the meet, caused fatalities. Again, this was virgin territory in a place where it sometimes doesn’t rain during the entire meet.

Rainy days should bring postponements, painful as that is.

The closing of Hollywood Park puts heavy traffic on Santa Anita. Nothing is more polarizing than the argument over synthetic tracks, which Del Mar and Santa Anita both tried and abandoned.

Belinda Stronach, CEO of the Stronach Group, told the New York Times that Santa Anita will at least consider bringing it back.

“You get pelvises and hind end injuries on synthetic tracks,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “I’ve had as many as 30 horses turned out on synthetics.”

But he agrees with trainer Richard Mandella’s more popular idea, a synthetic training track. That would relieve the pressure on the dirt and mollify concerns about training injuries.

Preparations

After Santa Anita closed the track to reassess the death toll and adjusted its drug and whip protocols, Jim Cassidy, the president of California Thoroughbred Trainers, said he was impressed with its precautions. A trainer should have to prove his horse is ready to race and train.

“I tell the jockeys, the exercise riders, don’t be afraid to tell me there’s a problem,” Baffert said. “I won’t be mad if we have to scratch. More likely I’ll go back and ask myself, ‘What did I miss?’’’

Atmosphere

Trainers generally won’t say it publicly, but they’ve been pressured into running their horses regardless of their condition. The bullying seemed to dwindle after the track dismissed executive P.J. Campo. But the buck must stop with president Tim Ritvo at some point.

The excommunication of trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was a good example. He was suspended on the next-to-last day of the meet. If they bring him back in September, it means Hollendorfer suffered a totally cosmetic, yet damaging, 48-hour slap. If they don’t, they need to explain that, particularly when Hollendorfer will be involved in the Breeders’ Cup at the same track.

The future

Belinda Stronach has been likened to Rachel Phelps of “Major League,” the nefarious owner who tried to sabotage the Indians so she could sell them.

That’s a bit unfair because she did push for reforms, like them or not. She is a friend of PETA but obviously feels horse racing and PETA can co-exist.

Of more concern is the legal demolition derby that envelops the Stronachs in Canada. Frank Stronach, the patriarch, is demanding $500 billion from Belinda and wants to remove her and Stronach Group CEO Alon Ossip from the family trust. She has sued Frank. Her brother and niece have sued her.

She has shown no inclination toward selling Santa Anita, which Frank bought in 1998 for $128 million and is worth, what, four times that today?

“We’ve got the same barns that Seabiscuit had,” Baffert said. “We’ve had the same water trucks for decades.”

One would think an Eli Broad or a Patrick Soon-Shiong or any number of Hollywood types would be interested in buying it and restoring the luster, particularly if it seems likely to become an auto mall.

Nice days at Santa Anita have no equal in this sports market. A deathly Breeders’ Cup might stop those days in their tracks.