Is Santa Anita Park past its issues? ‘We’ve turned the corner’

May 14, 2019 04:40pm

Mike Willman still wakes up each day — or, oftentimes in the middle of the night — thinking of a number. He’s then reminded of that upon arriving to work as Santa Anita Park’s director of publicity.

“It’s 23,” Willman said, referring to the total equine fatalities as a result of racing or training since the winer meet began back on Dec. 26.

But on the heels of Santa Anita’s temporary shutdown and sweeping new safety rules for Southern California racing, there’s another number calming tensions at Santa Anita.

As of last Friday, 6,635 horses had worked out on the main and training tracks, receiving official times, with no fatalities. The tally grew with another 142 on Saturday, 196 on Sunday and so on to open the new week.

“I think the majority of people feel really good that we’ve turned the corner and that good, safe racing is here stay,” said trainer Doug O’Neill, who leads the ongoing spring meet with 12 wins from 37 starters.

Admittedly, though, he added that “you had a lot of weeks with so much uncertainty,” likening the experience to a turbulent plane ride with no reassurance from the pilot.

“The intercom wasn’t working,” O’Neill said as proposals regarding medication and whip use were announced by track operator The Stronach Group without consulting horsemen.

Then they heard a voice in the form of protocols TSG Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo called "a new normal."

 Santa Anita now, among other measures, requires trainers to apply in advance for permission to work a horse, with track veterinarians determining whether the horse is fit to do so.

 The first 15 minutes after the track opens, and 15 minutes following each renovation break, are reserved for workers only.

 Veterinary records are required to follow horses through trainer or ownership changes at Santa Anita, including both claims and private sales.

 Track operator The Stronach Group appointed Dr. Dionne Benson as chief veterinary officer, a new role to oversee safety and research initiatives at all TSG tracks.

That's all, of course, in addition to Santa Anita bringing back Dennis Moore, its former track superintendent, as a consultant.

“It’s a little bit extra thinking and work and paperwork, but it’s all in the best interest of the horse,” O’Neill said. “It isn’t like any particular barn is being singled out. Everyone knows what they have to do. I haven’t heard really anyone complain about that.”

Willman said, in hindsight, the cause behind Santa Anita’s rash of breakdowns isn’t “a black and white situation.”

“But I think it’s clear that an inordinate amount of rain in a very short period of time created multiple challenges,” he said.

“They’re getting it,” added Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who assumes the issues stemmed mostly from a particularly wet winter. “They still have to tweak (the track) a little more, but they’ve really slowed it down. It’s really, really deep.”

But Santa Anita has been without a reported fatality since Rockingham Ranch’s 5-year-old Arms Runner broke down on the dirt crossover March 31 in the San Simeon Stakes. Since then, sprints haven’t been carded on the hillside turf course.

Between a safe Santa Anita Derby weekend and a historic disqualification in the Kentucky Derby, scrutiny has shifted east.

“This is much, much preferred — a controversy about a decision and not the horrible problems we went through,” Willman said. “It’s getting back to normal.”

There remains some lasting impact, however, as some California horsemen shifted portions of their strings elsewhere. For example, Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer Peter Miller is saddling more starters in Kentucky than ever.

Santa Anita will continue running three days a week — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — through the end of its meet on June 23. Willman said officials are hopeful the horse population will restore itself by the fall given time — and a few other factors.

While not running on Thursdays, Santa Anita, in conjunction with the Thoroughbred Owners of California, boosted non-stakes purses by $10,000 apiece.

Upon re-opening in July, Del Mar will continue its Ship and Win program offering $2,500 per horse for those that haven’t run in California within the last year. Non-stakes runners are also eligible for a 40% first race purse bonus payouts.

Later this year, the Breeders’ Cup returns to Santa Anita for a record 10th time on Nov. 1-2, and Willman promised a “strong” stakes schedule will precede it.

“So many people understand our livelihoods are at stake,” Willman said. “We need to continue to do better, and we need to continue to tell our story, which is this is a great game that brings so many people together.”

Says O’Neill: “Just keep the flight smooth and the intercom working.”


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