‘Very big mistake’? Santa Anita Park trainers split on new rules

March 14, 2019 07:42pm

Trainer John Sadler, on his way Thursday afternoon from a sale in Florida back home to California, hadn’t yet read in full the letter issued earlier by The Stronach Group announcing a “no tolerance” ban on race day medication, among other policies geared toward increased safety at Santa Anita Park.

But he knew of the headline-grabbing sticking point — that, once implemented, the regulations meant no more use of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix in horses.

“I think that’s probably a very big mistake,” Sadler said, “because the first time they have two or three horses tip over in the stretch bleeding out the nostril, how’s that going to look?”

Some trainers administer medication for works, and others only do so on race day. But generally, all conditioners contacted by Horse Racing Nation agreed there are horses who may no longer be fit to race without it.

“I think that would be fair to say, absolutely,” Sadler said. “You’ll see a lot of horses leaving California.”

Reduced field sizes, and the impact on owners who are heavily invested, were other concerns raised.

Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer also would have appreciated some notice.

“I don’t agree with the new rules,” he said.

“They made the decision, not the horsemen,” Hollendorfer said of The Stronach Group. To have discussed it before making the policy “would show respect, at least. I heard it the way everyone else did.”

A brief press conference and written statement signed by Belinda Stronach, president of track operator The Stronach Group, arrived after 4 p.m. ET. Called “An Open Letter about the Future of Thoroughbred Racing in California,” it outlined other safety measures, none of which a number of prominent trainers showed opposition.

They include added out-of-competition testing, increased transparency in veterinary records and use of the whip only “as a corrective safety measure.” In addition to Lasix, Stronach mentioned “increasing the ban” on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy and anabolic steroids.

“This is very much in line with most of the racing jurisdictions around the world,” said Simon Callaghan, a native of England who began his training career overseas. “I think so long as everyone’s on a level playing field and it’s to the benefit of the industry and the horses, I’m comfortable with it.”

Callaghan said the new measures are “something we need to embrace rather than pull against,” but he too mentioned a familiar issue.

“I don’t necessarily agree that not giving Lasix to horses is the right thing,” Callaghan said. “I think some of the other changes are fine. I think Lasix alone isn’t necessarily the reason for some of these horses getting hurt.”

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Since Dec. 26, the beginning of Santa Anita’s current meet, 22 horses have died as a result of injuries in training or racing. Santa Anita called in its former superintendent, Dennis Moore, as a consultant to investigate any issues with the main track’s surface. Given the all clear, workouts resumed Wednesday, and the 22nd breakdown happened Thursday morning.

“It’s been a horrific situation, and I’m just very happy to see them react in a way that’s a positive, horse-loving move,” said trainer Doug O’Neill, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner who termed himself “100 percent” behind The Stronach Group’s changes.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of links from my experience to Lasix and injuries,” O’Neill added. “I think just they’re reacting to a lot of non-racing horse lovers’ reactions. They’re in a pretty high-pressure (situation).”
Blaine Wright’s training base at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California is the other track included in The Stronach Group’s announcement. While Santa Anita isn’t set to resume racing until March 22, a week from Friday, Golden Gate was open Thursday and has already taken entries through the weekend.

Wright said no word had been delivered to horsemen there about when new regulations would be instituted.

“In my opinion, I do think there are horses that need Lasix,” he said. “There are bleeders out there. But as a whole, in the perception of the public, horse racing looks terrible right now, so they’re just trying to clean our sport up.

“…We obviously know there’s a hell of a lot of good horsemen down in Southern California, and for some reason, they’re going through a terrible thing right now. We’re in a business where the horses are athletes, and like any professional athlete, they do get hurt. It’s different for an animal that you can’t take off their feet.

“That being said, the public doesn’t know a whole lot of that stuff.”

Hollendorfer asked, “Why would you want to take a horse that was a bleeder and make him run without Lasix? It doesn’t make sense.”

“They’re not going to be able to run 12-race cards," Sadler said. "They’re going to have to look at seriously changing their calendar. I’d hope they’re not rushing into this.”

Lasix's place in American horse racing, of course, isn't a new debate. But an actual ban is uncharted territory.

The Water Hay Oats Alliance, a proponent of the Horseracing Integrity Act calling for uniform medication rules, has in past years signed on hundreds of horsemen, including prominent trainers Graham Motion and Kenny McPeek.

But as for Thursday’s news, “It caught everybody by surprise,” Hollendorfer said. “I don’t think people have talked it over much, at least among the horsemen. They almost certainly did among the management, so we’ll see what happens.”

Speaking from Golden Gate Fields, Wright called it “a starting point,” saying the game’s changing, and trainers will have to change with it.

“Most of us are out here trying to do well by the animal,” Wright said. “We’re trying to give the animal as few drugs as we can. I would hope that myself and my peers aren’t trying to hurt the animal. I just know what my program’s geared to, and I can only answer to that.

“I don’t think drugs are the reason horses are breaking down. But this is the start of something they’re going to implement. We’re going to have to go along with it. I personally think that it’s probably going to be a good thing in the long run.”


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