We are happy to leave it to the lawyers and courts to determine whether Santa Anita, Del Mar, and other jurisdictions acted within their legal means by pulling trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s license after six of his horses suffered catastrophic breakdowns this season in California.
But the lesson at hand is far bigger than the fate of one man: Business as usual as practiced by horsemen can no longer be tolerated. It’s no longer good enough for our equine and human athletes, and horsemen not willing to change their ways need to understand there is no place for them, given the political winds blowing through California and heading for the rest of the country.
Hollendorfer has been a top trainer for decades, good enough to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He works as hard as any of his peers; go out to the Keeneland September yearling sale early in the morning and you can find him sitting by himself at a table outside the pavilion poring over the day’s catalog. No one wants to see him lose his livelihood.
Despite having top stock for decades, though, Hollendorfer also maintains less-talented runners that have made him the leading trainer in Northern California for as long as anyone can remember. But he has now run afoul of the current standards. One can understand his hesitancy to change. As recently as last Dec. 26, when Santa Anita opened, Hollendorfer was the poster child for the way The Stronach Group wanted to operate: Run your horses as often as possible.
And that, ironically, is what led to his expulsion from Santa Anita once the track’s deathbed conversion took effect because of excessive breakdowns. Once TSG realized its policy of urging trainers to run at the risk of losing stalls was problematic, the word was put out not to take risks by running horses that were borderline calls. One prominent horseman in California had a one-on-one with Hollendorfer, reinforcing the point that he shouldn’t take a chance running horses that had any issue that could surface. While “in-today” vet exams help, no one knows these horses better than their trainer. Two more fatalities later, and it was clear the warnings hadn’t taken hold. Hollendorfer’s expulsion didn’t come out of nowhere.
Two years ago there was a well-publicized dust-up between Hollendorfer and owner Rick Porter over the dual-champion filly Songbird. Members of Porter’s team who saw Songbird at Saratoga in the days prior to the Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) told Porter they thought the filly was off in back. She ran second in the race, and afterward Hollendorfer told Porter he had walked, jogged, and turned the filly, and that nothing was wrong with her. The following day he reiterated that opinion.
Porter, not convinced, sent the filly to Dr. Larry Bramlage at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital to be examined. Bramlage met the van and walked the filly down the ramp himself. Before she hit the ground, according to Porter, Bramlage knew something was wrong. Radiographs revealed a razor-sharp chip in her ankle that could have blown at any time. Bramlage told Porter the leg was beyond repair and she needed to begin her next career. Over protests from her trainer, Porter retired the champion.
Whatever the outcome of the current legal wrangling in the Hollendorfer case pales in importance to the fact that trainers need to practice their craft differently going forward. What is going on now better serve as a wake-up call throughout this industry in North America. The alarm is ringing, and loudly.
Every decision that is made going forward in this sport should be first and foremost about what is good for the horse; and by extension, the men and women riding them. Business as usual doesn’t cut it anymore. And that is the good that can come from this season of turmoil.