4 questions facing Santa Anita Park ahead of a new meet

December 26, 2019 01:20pm

Postponing the start of the 83rd winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park from its traditional day-after-Christmas opening to Saturday signaled the start of a new era for the historic racetrack. 

Following a racing year marred by equine breakdowns, Santa Anita was licensed to hold its meet only on the condition that racing not be conducted in “inclement weather.” While that directive is left open to some interpretation, a forecast of wet weather for Thursday made five-days out was enough to postpone.

While that decision incited some blowback, it appears to have proven correct. Rain did fall in Arcadia, Calif., on Christmas night and into Thursday morning, which assuredly would have resulted in no turf racing and an abundance of scratches. An additional positive of the two-day delay is race fans will be presented with a stakes-laced, 11-race card on Saturday that includes three Grade 1s (Malibu, La Brea, American Oaks) and a special 11 a.m. PT post time.

Below is a closer look at the 103-day Santa Anita winter-spring meet.

What is the status of the dirt?

Santa Anita’s main track has been a work in progress since the safety issues that plagued the last winter-spring stand. During the most recent four-week autumn meet, which culminated with the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 2, the track was much deeper and slower than previously seen at Santa Anita. Many trainers viewed this to be an overcorrection as horses labored to get over it.

“I always thought it needed to be a little bit quicker,” said trainer Peter Eurton. “Sometimes if it’s too slow, it can create other issues that are just as serious [as being too fast].”

A three-day renovation in mid-December may have finally found a happy medium. Numerous trainers have raved about the condition of the track following the work. Aidan Butler, who heads the day-to-day operations of Santa Anita for The Stronach Group, described the work as “a remixing of the whole track.”

“It seems to be a little tighter. Even some of my turf horses seem to be getting over it, which is always a good thing,” Eurton said. “I don’t have any complaints about it whatsoever.”

Trainer John Shirreffs was equally complimentary to the main track.

“I think the renovation was basically rototilling it,” Shirreffs said. “It has been much, much better. Over time, materials separate a little bit, and so the rototill mixes it back up. I think by rototilling on a periodic basis it will make the track really good.”

For Butler and track superintendent Dennis Moore, there were no specific goals for the renovation other than providing a uniform dirt surface.

“It is a huge piece of material. It is not like a two-foot square you’re trying to keep consistent,” Butler said. “The art is not to make it either faster or slower. The art is to make it consistent and keep it in balance between the two. Everybody seems pretty optimistic that it’s really good at the moment. We’re looking forward to keeping that as the case.”

Trainer George Papaprodromou believes the track was a significant factor in the rash of breakdowns at Santa Anta earlier this year. He is also happy with its current state.

“The track right now is perfect. You don’t even hear them going over it," Papaprodromou said. "If they keep it like this, we’re in good shape."

Santa Anita officials are also searching an array of long-term options for its racing surfaces, including the possible re-introduction of a synthetic track.

Will there be racing on rainy days? 

This remains a bit of a gray area. As part of its licensing process, Santa Anita submitted an eight-page document outlining its inclement weather policy. It does not explicitly preclude racing on a wet track.

Any decision to race on a sealed of floated track will be made based upon a written certification by the Track Superintendent that, in his or her professional opinion, the resulting track surface is safe for the conduct of races," the inclement weather policy reads. "That certification shall also provide that the conduct of racing will not jeopardize the safe conduct of racing or training on days subsequent to the inclement weather event.”

While the possibility remains, Butler said it’s Santa Anita’s preference not to run on a sealed track, as was requested by the California Horse Racing Board. One way of staying off a sealed surface is through the 12 “flex dates” built in to the Santa Anita stand. While Santa Anita has its typical block of dates from December to June, there is a limit of 103 live-racing programs. Racing days that are canceled because of inclement weather can count towards these mandated flex dates.

With regards to running on sealed tracks, it’s our intent not to,” Butler said. “With the new processes and protocols put in place, we are going to be hypersensitive to not only sealed tracks, but before and after weather events. But with that said, the fundamental say is going to come from the track team and Dennis on if the track is safe. As long as the track crew is good and says it’s safe, I have no problem standing up and wanting to race.”

What new safety measures are in place?

Among the most noteworthy additions to Santa Anita is new, cutting-edge medical equipment for the backstretch equine hospital. Earlier this month, Santa Anita unveiled a standing PET scanner designed to aid in the diagnosis of pre-existing conditions. Specifically, the PET scan machine provides high-resolution, 3-D images that can precisely locate and evaluate potential problem areas in the fetlock joint.

An array of horses on the Santa Anita backstretch will also have images taken with the PET scan machine in order to build a database for further study. The Stronach Group said it spent $500,000 for the machine.

In mid-January, Santa Anita is also slated to receive a standing MRI machine to further assist in diagnosis. Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group, said the machines can “detect injuries on a microscopic level...and will aid in the detection of preexisting conditions in a way that has never before existed in Thoroughbred horse racing.”

In what The Stronach Group would call an additional safety initiative set to launch is the elimination of Lasix in 2-year-old racing. As outlined to the CHRB, Santa Anita has added a house rule banning Lasix beginning with this year’s 2-year-old crop. Next year, the use of Lasix will also be prohibited in all stakes races at Santa Anita. 

What impact will all this have on the racing?

Prior to the autumn meet, Butler said the horse population was down about 300 horses from the winter. It has continued to drop. Butler estimated there are currently 1,150 horses on the grounds. Given this lack of inventory, fewer races and smaller fields are likely.

Butler noted such a situation requires getting creative with race conditions, a task that falls on Santa Anita Director of Racing Steve Lym.

“A lot of this with your population comes to how strategic and how tactical you get with the condition book,” Butler said. “You’ll want good, competitive races because that’s just how the industry works. But there’s a pro and a con to all of it. Less horses at the moment will be an upgrade financially to those that are here. Less horses obviously give horsemen a better chance of winning.”

The Santa Anita horse shortage is expected to become even more acute when Oaklawn Park opens next month with its slots-fueled purses. Numerous trainers plan to send strings to Hot Springs, Ark., in the coming weeks — among them Eurton, Doug O’Neill, John Sadler, Richard Baltas and Peter Miller. O’Neill, who is also sending a string of horses to Dubai, cited a lack of leadership from Santa Anita officials during this time of uncertainty as a reason for the moves. 

Stemming the tide of horses leaving the state is of utmost importance for the success of Santa Anita. Butler sees one way for that feat to be accomplished.

“I just have to make sure Santa Anita is as safe as can be and hopefully — I really have to believe this in my heart — that when owners, trainers and jockeys see how good and safe this place is, they’ll want to be part of it,” Butler said. “I think at that point we’re going to start seeing an influx.”

In addition to the three Grade 1s, Saturday’s opening day program also features the San Antonio Stakes (G2), Mathis Brothers Mile (G2), Robert J. Frankel (G3) and Lady of Shamrock Stakes. Highlighting the meet as always is the $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) scheduled for March 7 and the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 4.

As a new Santa Anita season approaches, Butler joins many others in hoping the worst has passed for both Santa Anita and Southern California racing as a whole. 

“With the negativity around here at the moment, believe me I get it. I live here on the track and live it every minute,” Butler continued. “I probably get it better than anyone. But this is a time and a place. We’re going to come back and this place is going to be as strong as it ever can be.”


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