Horse deaths put Santa Anita under scrutiny on big race day


ARCADIA, Calif. — Santa Anita is facing enormous scrutiny, and not just because this weekend is the biggest race day of the year. The venerable track where superstars Seabiscuit and Zenyatta once thrilled fans is fighting for its future a month before the Kentucky Derby, with track officials struggling to answer for the deaths of 23 horses amid escalating criticism from inside and outside the sport.

The track has remained open – albeit under a uniquely somber atmosphere – for training and racing since the latest death last weekend. On Saturday, it hosts the $1 million Santa Anita Derby, the West Coast’s major steppingstone for 3-year-old colts hoping to run in next month’s Kentucky Derby.

Also on the 11-race card is the $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap for older horses, a race postponed from March when the track was closed for nearly a month.

Last Sunday, Arms Runner fell during the San Simeon Stakes and broke his right front leg, requiring the gelding to be euthanized. It was the 23rd equine fatality since Dec. 26, and first since March 15.

“If I thought there was a danger out there, I wouldn’t even leave my horses out there,” said Bob Baffert, the five-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer who will saddle Derby hopefuls Game Winner and Roadster on Saturday. “The last few days, they’ve worked probably 2,000 horses and there hasn’t been any issues.”

Still, there are calls for the track to shut down until it can pinpoint precisely why the deaths have occurred. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Humane Society of the U.S. and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are among those urging a stoppage. U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, who represents Arcadia where the track is located, has asked Congress to hold a hearing and investigation.

“Senator Feinstein’s call for the suspension of racing is welcome and sensible and should be nationwide to end the bloodbath in every racing state,” said Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s senior vice president. “The California Horse Racing Board should use the down time to make truly meaningful changes.”

The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office also is looking into the deaths.

The Jockey Club, the 125-year old organization that oversees the breeding registry of thoroughbreds in the U.S. and Canada, supports the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019. The proposed bill would create a private, independent anti-doping authority for the sport with uniform anti-doping and medication rules nationwide. Currently, 38 states have legal horse racing with rules that differ among jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, track owner The Stronach Group has begun putting in place drug and safety protocols for horses, including a reduction in the amount of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix allowed on race days, and restrictions on anti-inflammatory medications. Lasix is a diuretic given to a majority of horses on race days to prevent pulmonary bleeding. Outside North America, most racing countries ban race-day medication.

When the changes are fully in place at Santa Anita and Northern California’s Golden Gate Fields, also owned by TSG, they will be among the strictest in the country. Starting next year, all 2-year-old horses will run without medication on race day at the two tracks.

“We’ll see if we can keep the horses healthy and safe,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group.

The California Horse Racing Board voted recently to limit the use of whips in races, but it could be months before that rule is approved.

The turmoil has been most strongly felt in California, with hundreds of workers idled while Santa Anita was dark.

“These horses, they’re not our livelihood, they are our way of life,” said Baffert, who for years has been based at Santa Anita.

The Stronach Group’s Ritvo and the rest of the industry will be watching closely Saturday, collectively holding their breath that all horses and jockeys compete safely.

“We’ve been under this dark cloud,” Baffert said, “so hopefully we can move forward.”

Forte works out, waits for Belmont Stakes clearance

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NEW YORK — Forte, the early Kentucky Derby favorite who was scratched on the day of the race, worked out in preparation for a possible start in the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

Under regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr., Forte worked five-eighths of a mile for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. It was the colt’s second workout since being scratched from the Derby on May 6.

“It seems like he’s maintained his fitness level,” Pletcher said. “It seems like everything is in good order.”

Forte was placed on a mandatory 14-day veterinary list after being scratched from the Derby because of a bruised right front foot. In order to be removed from the list, the colt had to work in front of a state veterinarian and give a blood sample afterward, the results of which take five days.

“There’s protocols in place and we had to adhere to those and we’re happy that everything went smoothly,” Pletcher said. “We felt confident the horse was in good order or we wouldn’t have been out there twice in the last six days, but you still want to make sure everything went smoothly and we’re happy everything did go well.”

Pletcher said Kingsbarns, who finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby, will miss the Belmont. The colt is showing signs of colic, although he is fine, the trainer said.

Another Pletcher-trained horse, Prove Worthy, is under consideration for the Belmont. He also has Tapit Trice, who finished seventh in the Derby, being pointed toward the Belmont.

Judge grants Churchill Downs’ request for summary judgment to dismiss Bob Baffert’s lawsuit

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A federal judge has granted Churchill Downs’ motion for summary judgment that dismisses Bob Baffert’s claim the track breached due process by suspending the Hall of Fame trainer for two years.

Churchill Downs Inc. suspended Baffert in June 2021 after his now-deceased colt, Medina Spirit, failed a postrace drug test after crossing the finish line first in the 147th Kentucky Derby. The trainer’s request to lift the discipline was denied in February, keeping him out of the Derby for a second consecutive May.

U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings ruled in a 12-page opinion issued Wednesday that Churchill Downs’ suspension of Baffert did not devalue his Kentucky trainer’s license. It cited his purse winnings exceeding $1 million at Keeneland in Lexington and stated that his argument “amounts to a false analogy that distorts caselaw.”

Jennings denied CDI’s motion to stay discovery as moot.

The decision comes less than a week after Baffert-trained colt National Treasure won the Preakness in his first Triple Crown race in two years. His record eighth win in the second jewel of the Triple Crown came hours after another of his horses, Havnameltdown, was euthanized following an injury at Pimlico.

Churchill Downs said in a statement that it was pleased with the court’s favorable ruling as in Baffert’s other cases.

It added, “While he may choose to file baseless appeals, this completes the seemingly endless, arduous and unnecessary litigation proceedings instigated by Mr. Baffert.”

Baffert’s suspension is scheduled to end on June 2, but the track’s release noted its right to extend it “and will communicate our decision” at its conclusion.