Santa Anita News and Notes Opening week
• Santa Anita Park opens their gates this Saturday, the weekend after Christmas, for their 83rd Winter/Spring season, but this year will be very different than all the others. Racing will not be allowed this season on days that the track is deemed to be unsafe due to inclement weather. Rain is forecast this week on Tuesday/Wednesday, but not much is expected and Thursday should be clear and sunny. A three panel group has been assigned to determine if the track is considered safe and that panel is made up of the track superintendent, Dennis Moore, who was not on board last winter, a member of the Jockey’s Guild, and a safety steward assigned by the California Horse Racing Board. Of these three, Moore is the key figure. He is highly respected by all and was shown the door last year over a contract dispute, as the track was trying to save a buck and thought they could get by without him. That decision failed miserably. The main track surface has gone through a major renovation this past fall and the times should be quicker than last winter, but not too quick. The key will be the weather and though it certainly is going to rain, the impending forecast is for a fairly dry winter in Southern California. That would be a blessing for the Stronach Group and mostly everyone related to racing.
• The track opens with a blockbuster opening day card featuring five stakes, 10 total races, and a first post of 11:30 AM. The highlights of the race card are two Grade Ones, both at 7 furlongs, and both for 3 year olds. The Malibu stakes for the colts and geldings will feature the return of the very talented Omaha Beach for trainer Richard Mandella. He was the favorite for the Kentucky Derby last spring before a slight injury sent him to the sidelines. He worked ¾ over the main track in a bullet 1:12 flat last Wednesday, has won over $1.4 million, and has never missed the board in 9 trips to the post. Trainer Bob Baffert, who won the Malibu with McKinzie last year, will send two to the post against Omaha with Roadster and Much Better. The other Grade 1 on the card is the La Brea for three year old fillies, also at 7/8 on the main. Bellafina, who was a fast closing second in the B/C Distaff sprint heads up that field, with Baffert counter punching with the good sophomore Mother Mother. Another highlight of opening day is the return of one of the best riders in the country, Joel Rosario, who will ride here until at least to mid April before heading back to New York. The very talented Flavien Prat along with rising star Abel Cedillo will also be on hand to contend for the riding title.
• There are a number of changes taking place this year and for the most part, they will be in place for the overall safety of the sport. Santa Anita has installed a Positron Emission Tomography Scan machine, which will allow a horse to have an MRI of their fetlock joint (ankle) without the use of general anesthesia. This machine has been used on humans but never on race horses in this country. A very high percentage of injuries start in the fetlock joint and this machine is a form of preventive maintenance to deal with an injury before it takes place out on the race track. The other new change is the use of the “whip” by the riders in any given race. Effective in January 2020, the use of the whip by a rider is limited to just two times in succession without seeing a response from the horse, the old ruling was three times. This ruling was passed unanimously by the CHRB in their Dec. 12th meeting without any input from the Jockeys’ Guild. This is strictly a reaction to public opinion as many want the whip done away with completely, which is totally wrong for the welfare of the rider and the horse. There is still a lot of controversy on whether the whip doesn’t any real harm to the animal.
• Comings and Goings: Four riders have either left the circuit or soon will be leaving when Oaklawn Park opens up their meet in early January. Desormeaux and Martin Garcia are gone, and Tyler Baze and Joe Talamo will soon be leaving for what they believe will be “greener” pastures. As we mentioned earlier, Joel Rosario will be here for the first 4 months of the meet and with his agent Ron Anderson, will be getting many of the top mounts in each and every race. Another new face in the entries will be Umberto Rispoli, who will also have Anderson as his agent. He is in from Hong Kong where he was 11th in the standings and was a champion jockey in Italy in 2009 and 2010. He is 31 years old and should do well in the grass races. None of the trainers are leaving but many are sending a small string of horses to Oaklawn, where the purse structure is much larger than here at Santa Anita, due to the casino and slots they have at the track. Doug O’Neill is sending 12-15 there where Peter Eurton, John Sadler, Richie Baltas, Peter Miller and a few others will send about a half dozen. Jerry Hollendorfer, who has been banned from both Santa Anita and Golden Gate, is planning to send all 25 of his horses to that track, which does not have a turf course. The Dorf, who currently has filed an injunction against the Stronach Group to race and train here, actually had a way out and has refused to take it. He has filed a $50 million lawsuit against the Stronach Group for being banned and as the rumor has it, if he was to drop the lawsuit, they would allow him back in. I don’t know for sure how true that is, but it seems reasonable. The Dorf says it isn’t about the money as his stable has gone from 100 horses down to 25 in just six months time. But when a lawsuit is for that much money, it’s ALWAYS about the money. Trainer Mark Glatt was allowed 18 stalls at Oaklawn but is not going to use any of them, as his horses just don’t fit there, especially without any turf racing.
• OPINION: Racing is certainly at a crossroads as Santa Anita kicks off their winter meet. Although race horse fatalities in the state are down 50% in 2019 compared to where they were 10 years ago, each fatality is sensationalized these days by social media and the various animal activist groups. Racing desperately needs a national governing body that unifies all 37 states in the country that has racing. We need a national governing body to monitor medications, vet records, the use of the whip, and all pre-race protocols and examinations. Abolishing horse racing is not the answer. Where would all the 27,000 horses born each year go that are bred for racing? Someone needs to step up and make it happen, and if that someone is the U.S. Congress, so be it. Racing has proven they cannot govern themselves with each state doing whatever they want. Fatalities are going to happen, it’s the nature of the sport. But they can be reduced considerably, much like Europe, which has 50% less. The modern thoroughbred is much more fragile today than they were 50 years ago. The number of starts by each horse in their careers tell the tale. Medical procedures are performed at a very early age to horses that go to the sales ring to make them look as perfect as possible. But nobody looks into this as the breeding industry is all too powerful. Medical procedures at early age lead to breakdowns later in their careers, no doubt about it. It’s a great game, and for all that read this column, we all love the sport. But some major changes are needed, not just the band aids that are being applied today.
By Rod Young (Turfdom)