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Longtime Churchill Downs spokesman John Asher dies at 62

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) John Asher, the longtime spokesman for the racetrack that’s home to the Kentucky Derby, has died. He was 62.

Churchill Downs said Asher died Monday after suffering a heart attack while on vacation with his family in Florida. Asher also had a long career as an award-winning radio journalist.

His death comes days before the storied track opens its September meet. Churchill will host the season-ending Breeders’ Cup World Championships in November.

Asher joined Churchill Downs in 1997 and had served as the track’s vice president of racing communications since 1999. Before that he worked at WHAS-AM and WAVE-AM in Louisville and won five Eclipse Awards for his radio reports on horse racing.

Asher was a native of Leitchfield, Kentucky. He is survived by his wife, Dee, and three daughters.

Hall of Fame trainer banned at Santa Anita after horse death

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) 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

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.

Workers urge legislators to keep Santa Anita open

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Backstretch workers who walk, groom and care for racehorses at Santa Anita urged state legislators on Thursday to keep the Southern California track open after the deaths of 29 horses since December.

An estimated 500 workers gathered after morning training hours at the track, toting handmade signs emphasizing their love of horses and the importance of being allowed to continue their livelihoods.

“Horses are our lives” read one sign. Another read “We were born into this and it is our life.”

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said he is regularly approached by workers worried about their futures.

“A lot of jobs this industry has and we have to save them,” he said before the rally. “I can always pick up and leave, but they can’t. As an employer, I’ve felt more pressure worrying about them.”

The workers expressed their support for new safety measures put in place since the string of deaths that has cast a pall over the historic track sitting at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Arcadia.

“We do not like to lose one single animal. We love them all,” said Leandro Mora, a longtime assistant to trainer Doug O’Neill. “Those are our kids.”

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of track owner The Stronach Group, stood aside listening to the series of workers who stepped to a podium to speak. They were cheered loudly by their colleagues.

Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a statement that backstretch workers’ jobs are in jeopardy if more horses die.

“Safe horses mean safe jobs,” she said. “If these workers don’t already support continuing reform, they should get behind it right now.”

The Stronach Group later released a statement in which it noted that backstretch workers have been “a willing partner” in implementing safety reforms during the meet.

“We look forward to working with the hundreds of backstretch workers at Santa Anita Park as we continue to move the industry forward and educate Californians on how impactful horse racing is to the state,” track ownership said.

Racing at Santa Anita resumes Friday and continues until Sunday, the last day of the meet.

The circuit moves to Los Alamitos in Orange County from June 26-July 16. Del Mar near San Diego opens its major summer meet July 17.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent letters to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the owners of Los Alamitos and Del Mar urging them to expand the enhanced safety review Newsom ordered at Santa Anita.

“The extra layer of review you established to examine each horse’s medical records and racing history is a prudent step to ensure racehorse safety,” Feinstein wrote. “I urge you to implement it at racetracks throughout California for the remainder of the year.”

Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, told the crowd, “Without the backstretch workers there would be no racing.”

The workers, who are hired by trainers stabled at the track, typically rise at 4 a.m. and toil seven days a week as grooms, stable attendants, watchmen and exercise riders. About 80% of them live on the backstretch, where medical and dental services are available as well as help with drug and alcohol problems.

“It’s emotional to see all the hard workers and their families out here to have a voice because they haven’t had a voice,” O’Neill said before the rally. “There’s so much uncertainty, yet here we are loving on horses and no one reports on that.”

Workers fear for their futures if the track would be forced to close as a result of the horse deaths.

“This job allows me to sustain my family,” said Alberto Lopez Mendoza, a 35-year worker who said two of his children received college scholarships from a foundation dedicated to helping backstretch employees.

“I feel like the horses under my care are like my family. I take care of them like they are my family.”

Rally organizer Oscar de la Torre said horse racing directly provides 77,000 jobs in California, including 3,000 at Santa Anita.

“We don’t want welfare, we don’t want unemployment,” a worker in the crowd shouted. “We just want to keep our jobs at Santa Anita.”