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Racing resumes without incident at Santa Anita

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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.”

Maximum Security wins Haskell, survives inquiry

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OCEANPORT, N.J. (AP) Maximum Security captured the $1 million Haskell Invitational and, unlike the Kentucky Derby, survived a steward’s inquiry Saturday night.

It capped a long day that included a major delay triggered by intense heat and the safety concerns for the horses and riders. It led to the cancellation of six races and the delay in six stakes, including the Haskell, the biggest race in Monmouth’s meet.

When racing resumed around 6 p.m., the stakes went off without a hitch until the Haskell.

Maximum Security got to the finish line first, outlasting trainer Bob Baffert’s Mucho Gusto by 1 1/4 lengths.

For a minute, it seemed a clear-cut win in the Grade I race. However, the stewards posted the inquiry sign. Videotape replays showed King for a Day had to check when Maximum Security and Mucho Gusto stormed past.

However, it was quickly dismissed, unlike the Derby when there was a 22-minute delay before Country House was elevated to the top spot and Maximum Security was dropped to 17th place. It was the first time a horse that crossed the finish line first in the Derby was disqualified.

Owners Gary and Mary West are still trying to overturn that decision in federal court in Kentucky.

This was one of the most bizarre days in the 52-year history of the Haskell and it was just another weird twist in the 3-year-old thoroughbred picture which has had one strange turn after another.

There was the Kentucky Derby disqualification. A riderless horse in the Preakness. Three different winners of the Triple Crown races.

The latest turn came Saturday as the extreme temperature and a heat index value reaching 107- caused track officials to a order a 4 1/2-hour delay after the running of the first two races on the 14-race card.

The Haskell went off at 8:11 p.m., 2 hours, 24 minutes after its scheduled start. The field was reduced to six horses when third-place Belmont States finisher Joevia scratch after the delay.

The 1 1/8-mile race was outstanding. King for a Day, who beat Maximum Security in the Pegasus here last month, and the four of the other five colts were closely bunched for the early going with only Everfast trailing.

Around the far turn, Maximum Security and jockey Luis Saez and Mucho Gusto and rider Joe Talamo charged around King for a Day, who was on the rail.

Maximum Security was in the middle lane with Mucho Gusto on the outside. As they turned for home, Maximum Security seemed to put King for a Day and jockey John Velazquez in tight quarters. The only question was whether King for a Day committed a foul or King for a Day ran out of room as he tried to charge up the rail.

There was no change this time. The Jason Servis-trained Maximum Security covered the distance in 1:47.56 and paid $3.60, $2.60 and $2.20.

Mucho Gusto returned $3.40 and $2.80. Spun To Run finished third and paid $5.60 to show.

For the second straight day, the National Weather Service posted an excessive heat warning advisory Saturday, with near steady temperatures in the lower 90s in Monmouth County. The heat index values reached 107. It dipped to 103 by the time racing resumed.

Animal rights activists protested outside the New Jersey Shore track before the first race was to run.

Dennis Drazin, chairman and chief executive of Darby Development, operators of Monmouth Park, said a group of track, state and independent veterinarians monitored the heat for days and felt it was safe to race.

“However, given the heightened concern from the public about the heat, and in the interest of the safety of the horses and jockeys, we’ve decided to proceed with an abundance of caution, to cancel the remaining nonstakes races and to delay the six stakes races,” he said.

None of the horses who competed in the eight races run showed any sign of injury.

Drazin said he had been in contact with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. The governor left the final decision on whether to run to Drazin. He opted for caution in delaying the card, fearing harm to the horses and industry if there were a death.

With racing under pressure because of many horse deaths horses in California, most East coast tracks on Friday canceled their Saturday cards, including Saratoga Race Course.

“It would have created additional momentum to the crisis that already exists because of California problems,” Drazin said of a possible death of a horse. “We’re on the cusp of a crisis in the industry.”

A crowd of 37,186 attended last year’s Haskell, and another big crowd was expected Saturday for Monmouth Park’s biggest racing day. When the announcement came of canceled races and the delayed stakes, fans streamed to the exits. The track announced an attendance of 25,173 but many left before the big races.

Drazin said no decision had been made on how to compensate fans who paid for admission and parking. The track canceled its card planned for Sunday.

NBC was going to televise the Haskell live when it had a 5:47 p.m. post time, but it ended up streaming the race live on its digital platform.

Midnight Bisou won her fifth straight stakes this year, capturing the $150,000 Molly Pitcher with Mike Smith riding.

In other stakes, Just Howard edged Divisidero by a head in the $150,000 Oceanport; Justaholic ($5) won the $75,000 Wolf Hill; War Story ($16) took the $200,000 Monmouth Cup and I’m So Fancy ($5.80) captured the $150,000 WinStar Matchmaker.

The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series continues on NBC Sports with the Whitney Stakes from Saratoga Springs on August 3. Coverage begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Monmouth racing card shaken amid fierce heat, track protests

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OCEANPORT, N.J. — With extreme heat draining fans and causing concern about the horses, Monmouth Park canceled six races and pushed back until early evening its stakes races, including the $1 million Haskell Invitational headlined by Maximum Security.

The decision came after the start of the first race was delayed and the racing card was re-evaluated after the second race.

The National Weather Service again posted an excessive heat warning advisory Saturday, with near steady temperatures in the lower 90s in Monmouth County. The heat index values reached 107.

Animal rights activists protested outside the New Jersey Shore track before the first race was to run.

Dennis Drazin, chairman and chief executive of Darby Development, operators of Monmouth Park, said a group of track, state and independent veterinarians monitored the heat for days and felt it was safe to race.

“However, given the heightened concern from the public about the heat, and in the interest of the safety of the horses and jockeys, we’ve decided to proceed with an abundance of caution, to cancel the remaining nonstakes races and to delay the six stakes races,” he said.

Drazin said he had been in contact with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who left the decision on whether to race to Drazin. He went with caution, fearing harm to the horses and industry if there were a death.

With racing under pressure because of many horse deaths horses in California, most East coast tracks on Friday canceled their Saturday cards, including Saratoga Race Course and Finger Lakes in New York and Laurel Park in Maryland.

“It would have created additional momentum to the crisis that already exists because of California problems,” Drazin said of a possible death of a horse. “We’re on the cusp of a crisis in the industry.”

A crowd of 37,186 attended last year’s Haskell, and another big crowd was expected Saturday for Monmouth Park’s biggest racing day. When the announcement came of canceled races and the delayed stakes, fans streamed to the exits.

Drazin said no decision had been made on how to compensate fans who paid for admission and parking.

In addition to the Haskell, the card’s other stakes races are The Oceanport, The Molly Pitcher, The Wolf Hill, The Monmouth Cup and the Matchmaker.

NBC was going to televise the Haskell live when it had a 5:47 p.m. post time. Monmouth spokesman Tom Luicci said the network planned to fill its 5-6 p.m. slot with other horse-racing covering. It was going to stream the race live on its digital platform at 8:05 p.m., he said.

The start of the first race was delayed by almost 40 minutes, with no reason given at the time for the move. The 14-race card was reassessed after the next race. The six stakes races were reset for 6 p.m., with the Haskell at 8:05 p.m.

Maximum Security, who finished first in the Kentucky Derby and then was disqualified, leads the field of seven in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell.

The first two races went off without incident. The horses were hosed down on the track after the races. There were misting fans in the paddock before the races.