The air quality in general and a nearby wildfire in particular forced Santa Anita to postpone Saturday’s scheduled start of its Autumn Meet for six days.
“Much as it pains me, it’s the right thing to do,” said Aidan Butler, executive director of California racing for The Stronach Group. “I don’t want to be in the position to where the horsemen are left hanging. They need to know what they’re pointed toward.”
The Bobcat Fire, just five miles away in the San Gabriel foothills, is the main culprit. It has burned 57 square miles and was only 6 percent contained Monday morning, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It forced evacuation Sunday of 350 homes in Arcadia and nearby Sierra Madre and the opening of a Red Cross center in the grandstand at Santa Anita.
“When it’s that close, it’s very easy to understand the seriousness of it,” Butler said in a telephone interview Monday. “It’s not getting any better. The air quality is not getting cleaned up.”
Two racing days, Saturday and Sunday, will be lost from what was booked to be an 18-day meet. Opening day was postponed until Friday, Sept. 25. The Speakeasy Stakes, a Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint qualifier, has been moved to Saturday, Sept. 26, the same day as the Awesome Again, Rodeo Drive and American Pharoah, all Grade 1 stakes.
“We are planning on filling extra races throughout the meet to give our horsemen the opportunity to run their horses,” Santa Anita racing vice president Steve Lym said.
Although trainers have been allowed to make their own decisions on whether to work their horses in the morning, Butler said there could be new restrictions if the air quality gets worse.
“We’re OK,” trainer John Sadler said in a text Monday. “Just a lot of smoke.”
While Sadler and Bob Baffert said their stables have been going about business as usual, John Shirreffs said his horses have cut back their morning activity because the local air quality index led to government warnings for days.
“The air quality has been (unhealthy) sometime every day since Saturday,” Shirreffs said in a text from Kentucky, where he is attending the Keeneland Yearling Sales while keeping track of what is going on back home. “It’s difficult to decide what is best.”
“The smoke has impacted some training schedules,” Lym said. “Postponing until next weekend will allow everyone a chance to be ready to go.”
The Bobcat Fire is close enough to Santa Anita that a video camera there captured footage of when it started Sept. 6. But it is still far enough away on the other side of Interstate 210 that there is no immediate need to abandon the track and its stables.
Over the years, Santa Anita has lost racing days to weather, last year’s racehorse deaths and springtime coronavirus restrictions that were put in place by the Public Health Department of Los Angeles County. This might be the first time it has had to bow to a fire.
Mike Willman has worked in Southern California racing for 38 years and has been the track’s publicity director for 15 years. He said the biggest impact that fires had until now was smoke around the track during the Breeders’ Cup in 1993 and 2003.
“In 1993, we had fires burning above Sierra Madre and smoky conditions,” Willman said. “Bobby Frankel took his horses to Hollywood Park. Charlie Whittingham hunkered down at Santa Anita.”
A wildfire literally touched the Southern California racing industry in December 2017. That was when 46 horses were killed and about 400 others displaced as the San Luis Rey Training Center burned in the Lilac Fire.
This is the second consecutive Santa Anita meet that has been postponed. The traditional Dec. 26 start of the 2019-20 winter-spring meet was pushed back two days in anticipation of a winter storm that brought heavy rain to the track and snow to the San Gabriel Mountains.