Santa Anita officials 'optimistic' racing will return soon

Santa Anita officials 'optimistic' racing will return soon
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Aidan Butler, acting director of California racing for The Stronach Group, said Sunday on the Thoroughbred Los Angeles Radio Show he is “fairly optimistic” racing will soon return to Santa Anita Park.

In an interview with host Mike Willman, director of publicity for Santa Anita, Butler rated the chance racing would resume a “6.5” on a scale of 1-10.

“I’m an optimistic guy,” Butler said.

Racing at Santa Anita was suspended on Friday, less than an hour before first post, at the direction of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. In its notice to Santa Anita, the department of health stated, “After a review by our department, live racing of horses has been deemed a non-essential operation. Horse racing may not continue under the health officer order.”

This pronouncement from the L.A. County health department came just hours after the California Horse Racing Board released an advisory noting the board “is relying on state, county and local health authorities to determine whether horse racing is deemed essential for exemption from shelter-in-place orders issued by those authorities.

“The CHRB will assist health authorities in enforcing their decisions.”

While racing at Santa Anita has been suspended, it continues in other parts of the state. Both Golden Gate Fields in Alameda County, which is also owned by The Stronach Group, and Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County race on with only “essential” personnel on site.

Butler said Santa Anita officials “are in an open dialogue with the L.A. County health department.

“They do seem to be understanding, or are starting to understand, the really unique circumstances surrounding horse racing,” Butler said on Thoroughbred Los Angeles. “Giving us the ability to train without the ability to race...doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Optically, to the outside world, it’s, ‘Why would you continue racing?’ I keep saying these people don’t quite get it.

"If you understand how the ecosystem works, you need to train. If you have the inability to race, then the training is put in jeopardy because obviously the whole financial engine [of racing] funds all of the ability to keep the backside going. It just needs a little more explaining and a few tweaks to our protocols. But I’m fairly optimistic we can get back up and running.”

Among those “tweaks” for preventing a coronavirus outbreak at the track is a policy set to begin Monday that bars jockeys from entering the stable area and also bans jockey agents from being at the track entirely.

Butler also pointed out the various “shelter in place” orders enacted in throughout the country do not include the care of animals.

“I’m pretty sure all stay-at-home orders across the country have a caveat for the welfare of animals. So if people are there to look after them and make sure the wellness of the animals is kept, then if you look at it that way, why wouldn’t you continue with the financial engine that enables you to care for the horses?” Butler said.

“All the staff on the backstretch work for individual trainers. Their business is now in jeopardy. If you let that go for a little bit of time, you’re going to end up with no one being paid to look after the horses. We don’t need to be rocket scientists to understand when people aren’t being paid, they are no longer going to perform their duty…We are mandated to work and look after the horses. The only thing stopping racing will do is stop the ability for us to fund the people doing the work.”

Santa Anita is scheduled to host one of the most important cards of its meet this Saturday featuring the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Santa Anita Oaks (G2). Butler said he plans to have an announcement on the status of those races at the end of the day Monday or Tuesday morning.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert also joined Thoroughbred Los Angeles to weigh in on the suspension of racing at Santa Anita. He noted the track, which closed to the public on March 12, took early action to control a potential coronavirus outbreak and the wide-open working conditions of a 300-plus acre facility poses little risk.

“We jumped on this a month ago, we’re not late to the party,” Baffert said. “That’s why I was really surprised. I can see the pressure of L.A. County, that’s where [Santa Anita] is getting hit the hardest. But we’re so far away from that. It’s open. It’s like working in a field. We have so much property.”

Baffert also cited the greater good horse racing can provide for those sequestered at home in these uncertain times.

“The thing about racing, it helps with the insanity that’s going on in the world -- we need some kind of release, something to get our minds off what’s going on,” Baffert said. “Like FDR, he kept sports going during the war just to keep people occupied so they don’t go crazy. Horse racing is the one sport you can control.

“We’ve been practicing the safeguards for about a month,” Baffert continued. “We’re outdoors, in fresh air, not close to each other. We’re set up for this.” 

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