ARCADIA, Calif. – Racing returned to Santa Anita without incident Friday after the track was closed nearly a month ago following the deaths of 22 horses that forced changes in rules.
Discrete Stevie B won the first race on the main dirt track in front of a small crowd that was typical of weekday attendance. Outside the track, about 20 protesters toted signs critical of the sport.
“The regulars were here today and they were happy we were back and running,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. “It’s hard to get excited about being back when we had such a bad run of catastrophic injuries.”
All eight races, including three on turf, went off without problems under a sunny sky, a slight breeze and temperatures in the mid-70s.
Ritvo said total wagering was down about 10 percent compared to a similar day last year.
“We hope the real measurement would be next weekend,” he said, referring to April 6 when the Santa Anita Derby and Santa Anita Handicap will comprise a major day of racing at the Arcadia track.
In Friday’s $200,000 San Luis Rey Stakes, Risky Proposition was a late scratch on the recommendation of the track veterinarian. Epical won the Grade 2 race for trainer Jim Cassidy.
The resumption of racing was being closely watched by the industry and the general public concerned about the safety of the horses.
“I’m just glad we got racing,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert told The Associated Press. “This is the most beautiful track in America.”
Santa Anita had been without racing since March 3, leaving a variety of track employees idled without pay. The dirt surface was inspected and renovated during the shutdown that followed the high number of horse deaths since Dec. 26.
Santa Anita was hit by nearly a foot of rain during an unusually cold and wet winter.
“I think that was the major problem,” said Baffert, who didn’t have any horses injured or die during the recent incidents.
Baffert had one starter on Friday. Rafal finished third as the 2-5 wagering favorite in the fifth race.
The decision to resume racing came after discussions between The Stronach Group, led by chief operating officer Belinda Stronach, the California Horse Racing Board and the Thoroughbred Owners of California led to several rules changes at Santa Anita.
“Belinda has made it clear that eventually all tracks will be under stronger scrutiny, that status quo in the past isn’t acceptable anymore and we have to do everything we can to try to protect the interests of the horse first,” Ritvo said. “She tells me if we protect the interests of the horse we may have short term losses in business but we’ll have long term gains in sustainably of the industry.”
The biggest change in place Friday was an immediate reduction in the allowable dosage of the anti-bleeding medication known as Lasix on race days. The approved dosage of the drug that can help a horse’s breathing dropped to 5 cc instead of 10 cc on race days.
“Five cc’s is plenty for a horse,” Baffert said.
Of the 67 horses that raced Friday, all but two ran on Lasix.
There were six scratches, including four in the first race.
“Some of them have to do with the new initiatives we put in place,” Ritvo said.
Next year in California, all 2-year-olds will be banned from race-day medication.
Ritvo said ownership is paying increased attention to what he described as the outside bubble, referring to the general public that doesn’t follow the sport closely.
“Even if they’re not fans, they’re the ones that will go to Sacramento and they’re the ones that will come out and vote and end our sport,” he said. “There’s more of them than we have customers, unfortunately.”
A proposed rule limiting the use of a whip during races still requires approval by the racing board as well as a legal review by the state government, which is expected to take months.
Track announcer Frank Mirahmadi informed spectators before each race that the whip rule discussed at Thursday’s racing board meeting was not in effect.
Baffert suggested a closer examination of the sport needs to begin in the breeding shed, where millions of dollars are often involved.
“The trainers and owners are the only ones accountable. We’re being regulated like crazy,” Baffert told AP. “These horses are changing a lot of hands by the time we get to them. They need to look at that. The whole industry has to look at ourselves from within.”
Only time will tell whether the changes curtail the string of horse fatalities.
“We need to do a really good job of trying to get into that outside bubble and tell people the truth of how people really love and care (for) these horses,” Ritvo said. “I’ve been in this game a long time and we’ve never found the right way to do it.”