Santa Anita tested as hoof beats yield to sounds of silence

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ARCADIA, Calif. — The dirt track at eerily quiet Santa Anita is being extensively tested after the deaths of 21 thoroughbreds in two months forced the indefinite cancellation of racing and disrupted the workaday world of horses, trainers and jockeys.

The sound of pounding hooves on the dirt was replaced Thursday by silence punctuated with the honking of two Canada geese flying over the green Art Deco grandstand.

Clockers’ Corner, the popular morning hangout for owners, trainers, jockeys and fans to watch workouts and grab breakfast, was empty save for a few folks.

The stable area, usually hectic with horses moving back and forth to the track, was wide open. With nowhere to jog or gallop, horses gazed out from their stalls.

A machine moved around the mile oval under overcast skies, raking and aerating the track after heavy rain a day earlier turned the dirt into a gooey, peanut butter-like substance.

Dennis Moore, track superintendent at Del Mar and Los Alamitos in nearby Orange County, walked along the inner rail, pausing in spots to check the dirt. Moore was called in by Santa Anita’s owner, The Stronach Group, to help unravel the mystery behind what has caused the unusually high number of horse deaths.

A white van stopped at various spots around the oval with its back door open to reveal a device that mimics the impact of a horse running at full gallop, allowing engineers to see how the surface holds up. Those results will be used to evaluate the consistency and uniformity of the dirt for training and racing.

Last week, ground radar testing was done on the various layers of the dirt surface.

“It’s hard to find a smoking gun on these kind of deals,” said Joe Harper, chief executive officer of Del Mar racetrack north of San Diego. “It’s a combination of track and horse and conditions.”

In 2016, Del Mar faced a similarly harrowing situation, with the deaths of 17 horses during its summer meet. Another five died during its fall meet.

The seaside track’s surface was renovated and officials made procedural changes that led to improved safety. In 2017, there were a total of seven fatalities for both meets and four all of last year.

Harper credited Moore with helping solve Del Mar’s problems.

Although weather hasn’t been cited as a reason for Santa Anita’s woes, Southern California is experiencing an unusually wet and cold winter. The track received 11 + inches of rain in February when temperatures failed to reach 70 degrees (21 Celsius) on any day.

Its surface has been continuously sealed, a process in which the dirt is packed down to reduce the amount of precipitation absorbed on dry days. Conversely, on rainy days the wet track was sealed in an attempt to provide a safe and even surface.

“The track might be safe, but it’s inconsistent,” Harper said. “It might be inconsistently good, but it’s inconsistent and that seems to bother a horse more than anything.”

The track’s indefinite closure has left trainers and jockeys scrambling to change plans.

Two top Kentucky Derby contenders – Game Winner and Improbable – were set to face off in the highly anticipated San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday. Instead, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert will send both horses to Los Alamitos to work out on Sunday.

Plans for their next race will be decided after the workout. An option for Baffert’s duo could be the Rebel Stakes on March 16 at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.

Richard Mandella, another Hall of Famer trainer, said he’s moved eight of his 40-horse stable to Los Alamitos to get in workouts. The others require basic training that can be done whenever Santa Anita’s inner training track reopens.

Mandella hasn’t encountered any problems with the main track since racing began Dec. 26, but he knows “something is up. I’m trying to not panic and take care of my horses.”

San Luis Rey Downs, a training center with a mile track in north San Diego County, was preparing to accept horses scheduled to race soon from Santa Anita, about 100 miles away. General manager Kevin Habell said the facility has 50 to 70 available stalls from its total of 400.

Del Mar is unlikely to take in any horses because a state-mandated water reclamation project is underway in its infield, making the dirt track unavailable for training.

Joel Rosario, who leads the jockeys’ standings at Santa Anita, is waiting to hear when racing will resume before deciding whether to relocate earlier than planned for Kentucky, agent Ron Anderson said Thursday.

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was headed to New York to ride Saturday in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, a key Kentucky Derby prep.

Idling highly fit thoroughbreds for long stretches is not good for them, according to Mandella.

“Most of them are ready to race and if all you do is just lead them around the barn and walk them, they’ll hurt themselves just playing and acting up,” he said. “They need to do something. If you take it (racing) away, they get upset.”

Thoroughbreds in training typically are up early in the morning for a jog or timed workout in preparation for a race.

The horses return to their barn, where they are bathed and walked around for 30 minutes or so before returning to their stalls. They’ll spend the rest of the day eating, napping, getting a visit from a vet and receiving therapeutic treatment. They might also be reshod, before repeating the process the next day.

“It doesn’t take much for a sedentary lifestyle to change their whole training routine,” Harper said.

On rainy days, they may simply be walked around the barn. The 1,000-pound, high-strung animals aren’t used to being confined to their stalls day after day.

“They’re supreme athletes,” Habell said. “You’re not going to get a lot of bone density loss, but you want to keep the blood circulating and the muscles active.”

War of Will wins the 2019 Preakness Stakes

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War of Will, jockeyed by Tyler Gaffalione and trained by Mark Casse, won the 144th Preakness Stakes after a brief inquiry. This is the first Triple Crown win for both Casse and Gaffalione.

The win comes two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, where War of Will was one of the primary horses Maximum Security impeded during one of the most historic and controversial Kentucky Derby races on record. War of Will, known as “WOW” around the barn, finished 8th at Churchill and was elevated to 7th.

“I’m very happy for the horse, he deserved it more than anything. He’s so special,” said Gaffalione. “It really hasn’t even hit me yet. I can’t even put it into words. I just can’t thank my family enough for their support.”

Jockey John Velazquez was unseated off of Bodexpress out of the gate, and the riderless No. 9 horse continued to run with the pack. Stewards flagged the incident but quickly cleared it and listed him as “did not finish.” Outriders couldn’t attempt to catch him until later in the race because of how close he was running to other horses.

“I’m good,” said Velazquez. “To tell you the truth I’m just disappointed.”

After starting four back from pace-setter Warrior’s Charge, War of Will clung to the rail until sneaking through an opening down the homestretch to take over the lead. Longshot Everfast finished 1 1/4 lengths behind in second, and Owendale took third. Improbable, Bob Baffert‘s morning line favorite jockeyed by Hall of Famer Mike Smith, finished in fourth. Maryland-bred Alwaysmining ran 11th. See the full results here.

War of Will’s win comes just two weeks after one of the most controversial Kentucky Derby races in history. Maximum Security led wire-to-wire but was disqualified 22 minutes after crossing the finish line for impacting the forward progress of several horses, including War of Will and Bodexpress. Track stewards disqualified him, and every horse was moved up one position. Longshot Country House (65-1) finished second and was elevated to first.

For the first time since Grindstone in 1996, the Kentucky Derby winner didn’t run. Country House showed signs of a developing illness and stopped training. Maximum Security was rested after the Derby.

This was also the first time that none of the top-3 Kentucky Derby finishers have run in the second leg of the Triple Crown since 1951.

The Preakness Stakes, raced annually at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, is marked by its shorter distance and smaller field. Run just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, the fast turnaround time can be the biggest challenge for horses who just ran at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

NBC’s coverage of the Triple Crown concludes at Belmont Park for the 151st Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 8 on NBC and the NBC Sports app.

Last year, Baffert’s horse Justify won the 143rd Preakness with Smith en route to win the 2018 Triple Crown. Owned by WinStar Farm, he became the 13th horse to do so and Baffert’s second, just three years after American Pharoah in 2015.

Baffert’s Improbable remains favorite to win the Preakness

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BALTIMORE (AP) Bob Baffert-trained Improbable remains the favorite for the Preakness.

Improbable is 3-1 to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown after being installed as the 5-2 morning line favorite. He was also the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, finished fifth and was placed fourth after Maximum Security was disqualified.

War of Will, who was initially the second choice in wagering at 4-1, was 6-1 as of late Saturday morning. Bourbon War, who didn’t run in the Derby, has been bet down from 12-1 to 9-2.

Last-minute addition Everfast, who opened 50-1, is no longer the longest shot on the board; he is now 22-1. The longest shot now is 26-1 Market King, who is trained by six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas.

Odds will continue to fluctuate until post time at 6:48 p.m.