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.”

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

bob baffert
Sam Upshaw Jr./USA TODAY NETWORK
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”