Surrounded by Challenges - By Evan Hammonds

If it wasn’t enough to watch The Stronach Group struggle with all that has transpired at Santa Anita over the past months, last week we witnessed some of the impact of the situation and other unrelated issues arising for them elsewhere in the country.

The Stronach Group, a sizable and influential player when it comes to racetrack ownership with facilities from coast to coast, is experiencing how challenges can pile up, requiring them to manage important and consequential issues on a number of fronts.

For openers, the situation that has unfolded at Santa Anita Park, where 23 horses lost their lives while racing or training since the meet opened Dec. 26, has put the sport in the crosshairs, putting in a stark reminder that the industry needs consistent and unified solutions and messaging.

While the causes of the breakdowns remain unsolved, an unfavorable winter with unseasonable rain and cold was out of management’s control. Closure of the track for several weeks in March—which was the right thing to do—did little to quell outrage from the general population, which has reacted with enough rancor that politicians have called for one of the most beautiful racetracks on the planet to be closed.

Racing is struggling in Southern California as a result of the uncertainty, where on Saturday, April 13, 57 horses competed in 10 races, and the following day 47 horses raced on an eight-race program.

In addition, national and state lawmakers have joined the fray with California legislators discussing empowering the California Horse Racing Board to be able to take emergency action if necessary. In essence, the CHRB is wresting the ability to close the doors from track management.

On an unrelated note, The Stronach Group quietly pulled the plug on its Portland Meadows racetrack in Oregon at the end of March when it was reported that a permit application had been filed for development of the 46-acre property. The fate of racing in Oregon is in doubt.

Filling a bad-beat trifecta came April 15 when the Maryland Jockey Club (its parent company is The Stronach Group) announced that 6,700 seats in Pimlico’s historic grandstand will not be accessible for the track’s Preakness Stakes (G1) weekend. An engineering firm determined that seats in the old grandstand’s open-air section are “no longer suitable to sustain that level of load bearing weight.”

While that particular section of the facility is only used one weekend a year, the engineering report would seem to give The Stronach Group no option but to close the grandstand.

We’ve been to Pimlico many times and admit to having a love-hate relationship with the plant. While enjoying the “rustic feel” at Old Hilltop, that same “rustic feel” amazes us as passable for “charm” at an event considered one of the jewels of the Triple Crown.

You might say that we are not surprised at the results of the engineer’s report as we have experienced and covered the state of the grandstand over the years and have seen what it takes to maintain our iconic racetracks as they battle time and the elements.

The grandstand in question, which runs the length of the stretch, including an up-close view of the start of the race, should be considered some of the most valuable real estate in racing, not an unsafe venue for watching the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

A classic destination for American racing deserves better.

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