Bad Optics - By Evan Hammonds

March went out anything but like a lamb. Following a record-breaking sale at Fasig-Tipton’s The Gulfstream Sale of 2-year-olds March 28, Meydan delivered a splendid day/night of international racing in Dubai, and Maximum Security ran off a nifty wire-to-wire win in the Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) on a stakes-packed card in South Florida.

However, it was a March 29 maiden claiming race worth $21,702 that was perhaps most important to the North American Thoroughbred industry. The race was the first at Santa Anita Park since racing was shelved March 5 due to the horrific breakdown of 22 equine athletes since the meet’s Dec. 26 opening.

Discrete Stevie B defeated six rivals, winning the contest by 33?4 lengths in 1:43.16 for a mile. After all seven of the starters had crossed the finish line, there was a collective sigh of relief.

Tension was thick at the “Great Race Place” throughout the weekend, then tragedy struck again March 31, when a fatal injury occurred to Arms Runner after he fell as the field crossed the main track during the San Simeon Stakes (G3T) over the 6 1/2-furlong down-the-hill turf course.
Make no mistake: The perception of our sport has changed dramatically since Dec. 26. Thoroughbred racing in Southern California is in peril.

The latest mishap comes despite numerous new rules and regulations from The Stronach Group, the owner of Santa Anita, and the California Horse Racing Board. March 28—the day before racing resumed, new medication, workout, equine examination, and veterinary regulations were put into place in an effort to reduce injuries. Reduced use of furosemide (Lasix) is one of the policies, as well as new rules regarding use of the whip. Passed by a 5-0 vote by the CHRB, the new whip regulations are awaiting a 45-day comment period before going into effect.

“The meeting (March 28) went as well as could be expected,” said Harris Auerbach, a California breeder and son of CHRB vice chair Madeline Auerbach. “The commission was really brave on a lot of this stuff. The most important thing we’re doing is with the medication and the reforms in terms of anti-inflammatories and corticosteroids.”

Harris Auerbach said he lives in Ventura County, about an hour from Santa Anita Park. He speaks of “optics” when discussing racing’s image in the mainstream population.

“I can’t wear my Santa Anita hoodie, or my Keeneland sweatshirt, or Derby cap without getting dirty looks or being called a ‘horse killer,’ ” he said.

“The people in (the state capital of) Sacramento have made it perfectly clear—and they’ve worked with us—to tell us why the optics are bad, what we need to change, and how they’ll help us. The three things on their list the public won’t tolerate are horse deaths, whipping horses, and medicating horses. All three things need to be addressed.”

The angst inside the racing community continues to rise, as those outside the industry can’t understand how this many fatalities can be tolerated.

“We need to do a better job of marketing…but for survival, we have to put in some reforms,” Auerbach said. “It’s about taking a leadership position. And it’s not just for California. California translates to everywhere: the amount of horses we buy at Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton and OBS. The racing here has an impact on the commercial market, breeding market, stud fees. New York is also a very progressive state. I’m sure their legislators are watching very closely what is going on out here.”

The actions of March 5 was a tipping point at Santa Anita, but we’d be fooling ourselves to think this just a “California” problem. It’s an issue that requires every stakeholder to be mindful of the “optics”—as well as the realities—of the sport on a national level.

There has to be a better way—and a safer way—for the greatest game played outdoors to be passed on to future generations.

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