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.”

Royal silks return as King Charles III’s horse finishes 2nd

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SALISBURY, England – The famous royal silks returned to British horse racing on Thursday, with the first runner under the ownership of King Charles III finishing a distant second at Salisbury.

Educator was the first horse to wear the purple, red and gold silks since the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8.

Her oldest son and heir, Charles, has taken on the royal stable and Educator was sent off as the 11-10 favorite under jockey Tom Marquand for the Radcliffe & Co Handicap.

Okeechobee won by 4 \ lengths in the four-horse race.

The queen’s last runner was Improvise, who was beaten narrowly at Epsom on the day the monarch died at her Balmoral estate in Scotland.

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

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Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!