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Preakness could leave aging Pimlico, move to Laurel Park

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BALTIMORE (AP) Pimlico Race Course is all gussied up again this week, ready to host the Preakness on a day that will enable the 148-year-old track to survive another year.

Old Hilltop is showing its age, however, and it will cost more than a quarter-billion dollars to make it right. So while the group that owns and operates Pimlico promises the middle jewel of the Triple Crown will stay put through next year, there’s a chance that the 145th running of the Preakness in 2020 will be held within the state at newer, fresher Laurel Park.

Preakness Stakes: What Time, Where to Watch and More

Much depends on an ongoing study by the Maryland Stadium Authority. The initial phase of the investigation determined that it would cost between $250 million and $320 million to renovate Pimlico. The second phase of the study is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

“By then, we should know what the future holds,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Pimlico – and the Stronach Group – could get a shot in the arm from the Supreme Court ruling Monday that would allow states to legalize sports betting.

“We are already looking at opportunities where we can put sports books in our properties in Maryland,” Ritvo said. “It’s an added amenity for a customer at an already existing gambling establishment.”

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas believes that’s a viable option.

“You might be surprised who would show up here to bet sports,” the 82-year-old Lukas said while sitting outside the stakes barn on Tuesday. “In Maryland, if sports betting and horse racing can hold hands on an agreement on a contract, this thing might turn around a little bit.”

But if sports betting is legalized in Maryland, it will take a while – possibly even too long to address Pimlico’s needs. Maryland would need to approve a state constitutional amendment and legislators balked at passing a bill this year to put it on the ballot in November.

That stalemate was largely due to disagreements about who should be allowed to have sports betting – casinos and/or horse racing tracks. There was also concern that not a huge amount of money was at stake in the short term.

So, unless legislators hold a special session between now and November to put it on the ballot – legalized sports betting won’t happen in Maryland until at least 2020.

Lukas, who has won the Preakness six times and has two entrants in Saturday’s race, shook his head when asked about the prospect of moving the race.

“I would be really, really disappointed if they did,” Lukas said. “This is an awfully good facility for that day. I know the grandstand is old and everything, but everybody has a good time here. It’s a fixture in Baltimore, that’s for sure.”

The Preakness drew a record crowd of 140,327 last year, and the Black-Eyed Susan card one day earlier attracted 50,339.

But on most days, the horses at Pimlico run before a smattering of fans. This year’s Preakness is the highlight of a meager 12-day meet of live racing.

Back in its heyday, Pimlico hosted many of the sport’s most memorable races: Seabiscuit’s match race with War Admiral in 1938; Man o’ War’s debut in 1920 with a stunning win over Upset; and Secretariat’s last-to-first victory during his Triple Crown run in 1973.

But that was a long time ago.

There may not be enough paint, concrete and bricks to give Pimlico the makeover it sorely needs. Though work crews have found a way to make the track presentable every year on the third Saturday in May, the best course of action just might be to tear it down and build it over from the ground up.

“What we’re doing is under-serving the customer at the Preakness in the venue we’re in right now,” Ritvo said. “One way or another, we either need a new facility that can accommodate such a special event, or we need to move it eventually. Not because it’s a money-grab for the Stronach Group. What it is about is creating an environment for year-round racing.”

A few years ago, Pimlico hosted a live card on Kentucky Derby day, but more people showed up at Laurel to bet on simulcast races, Ritvo noted.

“Most Fortune 500 companies would run the Preakness for two days and leave, say it’s a great event and it’s profitable,” Ritvo said. “But being the stewards of this event, we have to look at what it’s going to be 100 years down the road.”

Toward that end, the Stronach Group is looking at Laurel Park – located 29 miles south of Pimlico – as a viable option.

“We’ve had discussions of what it would be like at Laurel, but not in detail,” Ritvo said. “There are lots of options at Laurel. Our focus at Laurel was to continue to improve the facility for year-round racing, and then also to host a Breeders’ Cup there very soon.”

Under state law, the race can be moved to another track in Maryland “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”

Ritvo knows the law, and he isn’t looking to create issues.

“The truth of the matter is, we don’t want to be disruptive or fight with anyone,” he said. “The Preakness is always going to be a Maryland event. And if Laurel someday is a better location, more profitable and makes more sense and works, we hope the state would see that and understand it.

“There’s going to be a large investment needed to rebuild Pimlico. We’re not asking for them to do that, but if they want to do that and have that in the core of their heart, then we’re willing to listen.”

Associated Press Writer Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland contributed to this report.

Santa Anita season ends after 30 horse deaths, trainer ban

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Santa Anita’s troubled racing season has come to a close after the deaths of 30 horses at the Southern California track rattled the industry and led to Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer being banned when four of his horses were among the casualties.

There were no incidents during morning training hours or in the 10 races Sunday.

About 20 protesters briefly toted signs outside an entrance to the track, calling attention to the deaths and condemning the sport.

Hollendorfer had two horses entered to run closing day, but they, along with two others Saturday, were scratched by track stewards on the recommendation of a special panel convened to review horses’ medical, training and racing history.

The 73-year-old trainer was ordered by The Stronach Group to remove his horses from Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, which are owned by the company. The fourth death in his stable during the meet occurred Saturday.

Track ownership said Hollendorfer was “no longer welcome to stable, race, or train his horses at any of our facilities.”

No one from The Stronach Group spoke to the media Sunday despite a request. The company said a statement would be forthcoming in a few days.

Racing next moves to Los Alamitos in Orange County beginning June 29, where the California Horse Racing Board said a panel will review horses entered to run there.

That track will “gladly” provide stalls to Hollendorfer, whom track owner Edward Allred called “an unexcelled horseman.”

“Unless forbidden by the California Horse Racing Board, we intend to permit entries from Hollendorfer,” Allred said in a statement. “We do not feel he should be a scapegoat for a problem which derives from a number of factors.”

Still unknown is whether Hollendorfer would be allowed to train at Del Mar near San Diego, which opens its summer meet July 17. A track spokesman said Sunday a decision had yet to be made. Neither Los Alamitos nor Del Mar is owned by The Stronach Group.

Racing at Santa Anita is set to resume Sept. 27. The track is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup world championships on Nov. 1-2.

The Breeders’ Cup board of directors is expected to meet this week to discuss this year’s location.

The fatalities at Santa Anita since Dec. 26 have raised alarm within California and the rest of the racing industry. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently stepped in to direct the formation of the special panel to evaluate horses’ histories before they race. Track and racing board officials implemented several changes involving exams of horses scheduled to train or race.

The racing board also is looking at changes involving jockeys’ use of a riding crop in a race.

Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux was fined $100 by the stewards for violating a CHRB rule that prohibits use of a crop more than three times in succession without giving the horse a chance to respond. The violation occurred in the eighth race Saturday.

Bob Baffert, the two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer, recently traveled to Sacramento to meet legislators concerned about the horse deaths. The majority occurred during the winter months when usually arid Santa Anita was hit with record rainfall totaling nearly a foot.

Trainers like Doug O’Neill, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, are dismayed that the sport is under fire amid a drumbeat of negativity.

“The important thing is that they are accidents and accidents happen,” O’Neill said. “I can you tell in the 32 years I’ve been back here I’ve never seen one case of an abuse.”

About 500 backstretch workers rallied on Thursday to ask for help in protecting their jobs, emphasize their commitment to the horses in their care and their support of the recent rules changes.

O’Neill and Baffert support the workers, many of whom come from Mexico and Guatemala.

“Right now I’m worried about keeping these horses and keeping people here,” Baffert said. “If it went away, I worry about all these unemployed people.”

O’Neill noted there are good things done by the racing industry but “it’s just unfortunate that very little of that is talked about.”

He lamented what he perceives as a lack of transparency by Santa Anita management about what’s happening.

“You’d like to hear more dialogue between all the different factions that are involved,” O’Neill said. “It seems like there’s these small little groups that have all the power. They have their private meetings and none of it gets trickled down to us what the heck is going on.”

The Stronach Group has moved to reduce the use of anti-bleeding medication Lasix on race days. Going further, there’s been a proposal to eliminate Lasix in 2-year-old horses starting next year.

“Racing needs Santa Anita to work,” Baffert said. “Santa Anita is so important. If something happens here, it affects everything.”

Hall of Fame trainer banned at Santa Anita after horse death

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was banned by the ownership of Santa Anita on Saturday after a fourth horse from his stable died – and the 30th overall – at the Southern California track.

The Stronach Group, which owns the track, said in a statement that effective immediately Hollendorfer “is no longer welcome to stable, race or train his horses at any of our facilities.”

On the recommendation of a special panel convened to review horses’ medical, training and racing history, the track’s stewards scratched four horses trained by Hollendorfer that were entered to run Saturday and Sunday.

A 4-year-old gelding trained by Hollendorfer was injured Saturday while exercising on the training track and was euthanized. It was the first death of the meet on the training track, which isn’t used for racing.

It was the 30th death since the racing season began Dec. 26. The track closes for the season Sunday.

The high number fatalities have led officials at Santa Anita and the California Horse Racing Board to initiate several measures to address horse and rider safety. The spate of deaths has drawn national political attention, including from Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who has called for racing to stop while training and racing conditions are inspected.

Hollendorfer couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

However, he told the Daily Racing Form, “I’m training over 100 horses right now. Santa Anita didn’t want me stay on the grounds. My opinion was that was a premature thing to do. I thought it was extreme. Now I have to step away for a while.”

The special panel rejected 38 horses that were set to run over the final six days of racing, according to the California Horse Racing Board. The panel was created last week at the direction of Newsom.

Hollendorfer has 7,617 winners from 33,519 starters and purse earnings of $199,737,768 in his career, according to Equibase.com.

He has three wins in the Breeders’ Cup and none in the Triple Crown races. His best finish with seven Kentucky Derby starters was third in 2017 with Battle of Midway. That colt sustained a fatal injury during a workout at Santa Anita on Feb. 23.

Hollendorfer’s first horse to die at the meet was a 4-year-old gelding on Dec. 30 after a race on the dirt.

It wasn’t immediately known whether Hollendorfer will be allowed to race at Los Alamitos in Orange County when that meet opens June 29. A spokesman for Del Mar said the track was aware of Hollendorfer’s ban and was gathering information. Del Mar near San Diego opens July 17. Neither track is owned by The Stronach Group.

The racing board says a panel also will review horses entered to run at Los Alamitos.

A 9-year-old gelding named Kochees trained by Hollendorfer was euthanized on May 26 after injuring his left front leg in a race a day earlier.

At the time, a spokesman for The Stronach Group told The Associated Press that it was looking into whether new protocols were followed leading up to the gelding being euthanized.

The Stronach Group said in a statement Saturday it regrets that Hollendorfer’s record in recent months at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California “has become increasingly challenging and does not match the level of safety and accountability we demand.” Both tracks are owned by The Stronach Group; Golden Gate doesn’t resume racing until Aug. 15.

The track owner said individuals who don’t embrace the new rules and safety measures that put horse and rider safety above all else will have no place at any Stronach Group racetrack.

Mike Marten, spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, said Hollendorfer’s gelding American Currency injured Saturday wasn’t entered to run in any race and thus wasn’t subject to review by the special panel.

Kochees’ injury appeared to be correctable through surgery. However, when doctors realized the horse had lost blood flow to the leg, he was euthanized.

Among the rules put in place since March, a trainer’s veterinarian must sign off on a horse’s fitness before the track’s veterinarian also takes a look at the animal ahead of it training or racing.

“In my mind there is absolutely no doubt that we’ve done every single thing properly with Kochees and all the rest of our horses, too,” Hollendorfer said in response to questioning by The AP on May 27. “We certainly are pretty sad when they get hurt.”

The 73-year-old trainer is best known for overseeing Eclipse Award winners Blind Luck, Shared Belief and Songbird. Based in Northern California for most of his career, Hollendorfer frequently ships his horses to Southern California’s tracks to run.

He’s known for buying young horses at auction in the low to mid-price range, often with his own money. He then puts together ownership groups and retains a percentage of the horse while training it as well.