Usually the air around the Breeders’ Cup is tinged with the anticipation of who is going to emerge victorious over the two-day stand. There certainly was a level of anticipation to this year’s model, run at Santa Anita Park, but it was more cautionary than anything else.
The industry collectively held its breath leading up to the Nov. 1-2 World Championships, and got just to the moment of exhale when it happened.
In the event’s final race, the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Mongolian Groom broke down in the stretch, was vanned off, and later euthanized. The death—the 35th equine fatality at the Southern California track since last December—isn’t playing well outside of the insular bubble of the breeding and racing community.
Mention you are in horse racing and the first question is, “What’s up with all those horses dying at Santa Anita?” While leaving LAX after the Breeders’ Cup, a gentleman working for the Transportation Security Administration asked if there was a mysterious bacteria in the soil at the track.
That might be about the only stone left unturned during the run-up to the World Championships.
The “Breeders’ Cup World Championships Safety and Integrity Plan,” which was explained at length with print materials and a press conference, showed the thoroughness of what was in place. Jotting notes, we heard the term “abundance of caution” from one of the panelists. We’d say that’s a succinct term for the week.
Employed were some 30 veterinarians who examined each horse three or more times throughout the week, and that was on top of out-of-competition testing that began six months ago. The results were a few scratches of Breeders’ Cup-entered horses as they were deemed to have issues that might not allow them to offer their best performance. The turf and main track surfaces were inspected—and dirt track harrowed—seemingly hourly.
“The horses that are racing here this weekend are the most scrutinized horses in the history of horse racing—without a doubt,” said Dr. Scott Palmer, who was onsite and is currently the equine medical director for the state of New York.
This was no dog and pony show. The effort was substantial and thorough for a special event such as Breeders’ Cup…yet completely unaffordable and unsustainable for the long-term health of the sport.
So, what’s to be done?
We’d offer what Palmer has put in place at the New York Racing Association tracks, which involves a fundamental risk-management protocol.
“It’s not a real sexy concept…but it works,” Palmer said Nov. 1. “We do it every day. In the past six years we’ve had phenomenal results.
“It’s time-tested. It’s the same internal control issue that they have been using in manufacturing since the day Henry Ford started making cars. It’s the same thing. I just adapted it to horse racing. It works, and I’m excited about it.”
In a nutshell, the program revolves around four levels of risk.
The first two are risk factors common to every racehorse in America, and risk factors that are in play at every racetrack in America.
As an example of the latter, Palmer offered up a shortage of horses. That is a high-stress factor on every racing circuit.
“The third layer is risk factors that are specific to a particular meet, such as Del Mar or Saratoga that are very high-risk because they are too short periods of time,” Palmer said. “Trainers don’t have the opportunity to wait for another race. A trainer wants to go to Saratoga...he’s been training for that race for months and months and he might do things that he may not ordinarily with other options.
“And the fourth is risk factors that are particular to the individual facility,” he said. “For example, at Saratoga we had a problem in 2017 and in part that problem was related to the fact we didn’t have a lot of time to get the racetrack ready for the meet because there were a lot of horseshows on the track that prevented getting heavy equipment on the surface. It could be a labor union issue; it could be any kind of facility issue.”
Leading to the Breeders’ Cup, it appears as if Santa Anita did everything possible toward the fourth risk factor, but of course, injuries and fatalities will still occur.
Palmer’s explanations of each factor go much deeper than allotted space here, but he noted he continues to try to push his theory nationally.
“It has to be scalable, affordable, practical, but it also has to be targeted to be effective,” he noted.
The racing industry has been targeted as well.
Best practices are our best hope.