Santa Anita Park brought down the curtain June 23 on what certainly was the most bizarre race meet the track has held in its 85-year history. Noteworthy for all the wrong reasons, the stand ended with The Stronach Group’s ruling Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer off the grounds of its tracks in Northern and Southern California after a fourth Hollendorfer trainee suffered a fatal breakdown at Santa Anita. Santa Anita had begun its signature stand Dec. 26 with trainers feeling pressure to enter as many horses as possible and ended it having establishing stringent rules designed to limit entries to horses that had passed various levels of approval from veterinarians and regulators.
Those rule changes were made under the weight of 30 equine fatalities at the facility, which drew unwanted attention from mainstream media, animal-rights activists, and politicians that threaten the ongoing existence of horse racing in California. Spikes in horse fatalities are not new, nor are they exclusive to California. But with the state in the forefront of issues such as animal rights, horsemen across the country are correct to be very concerned about what has transpired on the West Coast over the past months.
These recent events also underscore the lack of unified messaging from the Thoroughbred industry. Santa Anita struggled with an initial response to mainstream media reports. A one-month break from racing there appeared to quiet the rash of horse fatalities, which have adhered to national averages since racing rebooted in SoCal. But each subsequent breakdown at Santa Anita is still treated like headline news in national media, with the narrative still getting away from the industry like a runaway train.
It should be noted that the most effective messaging from horsemen came from a public meeting where people such as jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. spoke of their love for the animals; and from a press conference called last week by backstretch workers, who were most effective in framing the argument for horse racing as a pro-jobs issue that allows families a livelihood and serves as a road ahead for their children.
Stricter protocols for “in-today” horses and those training are a good idea. Better weather without record-setting rainfall would also be helpful. The reality is, however, that horses will get hurt—sometimes fatally—on racetracks. Accidents happen in farm pastures, they happen when mares give birth, and they happen at the racetrack. We need to continue to work together to minimize such incidents, so that our defense of this sport has a moral foundation. And we must be prepared to tell our story to the public to ensure its
Finding that message would be the silver lining to the clouds over Santa Anita this season.
Whether it’s the official arrival of summer, the continual rain and subsequent need to cut grass, or the pictures of verdant ground coming our way from the stand at Royal Ascot, our mind is very much on turf racing as the calendar swings into July.
As we have talked to racing secretaries from around the country over the past several years, all evidence points to their desire to card as many grass races as their facilities and the weather allows. It is no secret that turf events attract more entrants, which leads to greater handle, which leads to larger purses, which leads to happy horsemen. Also, runners on the green are able to race more often and on average have longer careers than their brethren on dirt, further helping owners. An added benefit is the fewer number of breakdowns on the turf at a time when that issue has become critical to the well-being in the sport.
As Frank Angst reports, 42% of our graded stakes events in the U.S. now take place on the green. But turf racing won’t fully take hold here until breeders find the confidence to support stallions such as Kitten’s Joy, Karakontie, Oscar Performance, Flintshire, and several other top-level turf performers now standing at stud here; and until buyers are willing to purchase their progeny at auction. Given the opportunities, the sooner we bridge the gap between what is happening at the track and the commercial market, the better off we will be.