This was a season to forget at Santa Anita.
The winter/spring 2018-2019 racing season at The Stronach Group-owned Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, ended Sunday, the entire six-month period staggering to the wire like an exhausted marathon runner. There had to be a huge sigh of relief as the tote board went dark for a final time this spring, signaling the end of a season of racing that saw 30 horse deaths and global scrutiny over what happened and why, and also what the future would bring.
And just a few days before the end of the meet, a bitter note: Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was ruled off Santa Anita after a fourth horse in his care died while racing or training.
If being completely honest, the meet seemed at sixes and sevens from the get-go. Well-loved and well-respected announcer Michael Wrona was dismissed without notice, as he himself announced on Twitter. Longtime racing secretary Rick Hammerle received little more courtesy, escorted to his car by track security with a box of his belongings shortly after his surprise termination papers were issued. And for a little while, there was no active racing secretary, the position cobbled together by various racing office employees and TSG staff until Steve Lym from Woodbine eventually accepted the position to finish out the meet.
Then it started raining, a deluge of nearly 20 inches in the course of a handful of months. After years of drought conditions, and last year’s third driest season in Los Angeles since rainfall records began being kept in 1877, the Arcadia area received more than four times the average.
Each time it rained, the track was sealed and horses not only raced over a sealed track, they trained over it. Virtually every day. A sealed track is believed to have its layers below the surface compacted, potentially making it even harder under horses’ hooves. And because rain in southern California is normally rare, the general composition of the surface isn’t comprised to sustain any sort of regular deluge.
And with the sealed tracks came the horsemen, who didn’t want to run their horses over it but were met with pressure and threats of loss of stall space if they scratched or, heaven forbid, chose not to enter. At least one trainer tweeted about it, others were afraid to speak out for the same reason. With stall space the most valuable currency for southern California trainers, all were at the mercy of TSG management.
Where did it begin?
The first fatal injury was Dec. 30 when the Hollendorfer-trained Psychedelicat broke down in a $16,000 claiming race. Ten more, for various trainers, followed during racing and training during January and five more were fatally injured in February before Breeders’ Cup champion Battle of Midway, who was brought out of retirement due to infertility, broke a hind leg while training on Feb. 23. He was the 17th fatality, and that seems to be the point where the world started to take notice.
In early March, after another click-grabbing headline announcing the 21st dead horse of the season, Santa Anita shut down for what would be 13 racing days over three weeks to examine and fix the main track. Soon after, a truncated season of three racing days a week through the end of the meet was announced. Track surface specialists from around the world were called to Arcadia and after some extensive examination and adjustments, the surface was deemed safe.
But when the track reopened on March 29, nine more fatalities followed. Pressure to shut down came from activists to California Governor Gavin Newsom to horsemen themselves, but Santa Anita kept going.
On the final weekend of the meeting, after the Hollendorfer-trained American Currency broke down on Saturday morning to bring the fatality total to 30, TSG took the unprecedented step of banning him from the grounds and the entry box at all TSG tracks, citing the number of fatal injuries his trainees suffered. Four of the 30 horses that broke down during racing or training at Santa Anita were in his care, and there were two others at TSG-owned Golden Gate Fields. It was a stunning development that most in racing were still processing at the same time Hollendorfer and his staff moved his entire southern California string to Los Alamitos about 30 miles south.
But to be fair, not everything that came out of the meet was negative.
Regardless of motive (some suspected them to be pandering to extreme advocacy groups like PETA and blame shifting) TSG instituted long overdue medication reform as well as changes to the way jockeys use whips, which are now being adopted at other tracks, though curiously not at other Stronach-owned tracks.
Race day medications at Santa Anita, except Lasix, are now forbidden. Lasix doses were cut in half from a maximum of 10ccs to a maximum of 5ccs per treatment. Santa Anita also required all trainers to fill out permission slips prior to scheduled main track workouts, a new rule designed to give officials 48 hours to determine if the horses were fit to work.
And perhaps most notably, the track created a five-member panel of veterinarians and officials to determine the soundness of all horses entered. Only one panel member needed to dissent to necessitate a scratch and by the final two weeks of the meeting, 38 horses were deemed unfit to run for varying reasons, from age to a missed workout and some concerns about soundness in between.
So what happens now?
Gone, for at least a little while, are the protestors who decried each death and called for a complete shutdown of racing. Gone for a little while are the governor and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California demanding answers virtually daily, the temperature of investigations by California Horse Racing Board and the Los Angeles county district attorney’s special task force dropping a few degrees under a shuttered facility.
And also gone, for at least a little while, is just about every news outlet in North America, from local stations and publications to national telecasts and national news sources featuring the story daily, their social media posts on the subject prompting thousands of negative comments and shares, denouncing racing and everyone in it as money-grubbing animal abusers. And thanks to social media, the bad word made it around the globe, countless potential fans lost to click-bait headlines.
Racing now moves down the road to Los Alamitos, which, perhaps to avoid the same criticisms that have plagued Santa Anita, has also instituted a five-member panel of vets and officials to determine overall racing soundness of each horse entered. Hollendorfer will be there, the North Orange County track serving as the warm port in his storm. And the jury is still out on Hollendorfer’s status at Del Mar, but whether you disagree or not with Santa Anita’s decision to ban him, his Hall of Fame career is forever tarnished. Every time he’s brought up in conversation this situation will be part of the dialogue.
The questions remain, though. What caused the fatalities and what will be done to prevent them when racing returns to Santa Anita on Sept. 27? The Breeders’ Cup is scheduled to hold its 36th annual world championships there Nov. 2-3. (There is a Breeders’ Cup team meeting set for this meet to discuss a potential move to Churchill Downs). If online sales of price-slashed merchandise for the event at Santa Anita and expensive hotel rooms in Louisville for that time period are any indication, a move seems more likely than not.
American horse racing in general has been battling an image crisis for a while for various reasons, but thanks to the winter at Santa Anita the entire horse racing industry has been under siege. In addition to the question of whether Santa Anita can ever recover amid protests and claims of greed over animal welfare are also questions about how the whole industry has been impacted.