Horse deaths put Santa Anita under scrutiny on big race day

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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.”

Preakness winner War of Will likely to run in Belmont

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BALTIMORE (AP) Owner Gary Barber called trainer Mark Casse for the fourth time in 11 hours since War of Will won the Preakness.

Only this time, Casse was in the middle of holding court with reporters the morning after his first Triple Crown victory.

“All’s good and we’re going to the Belmont?” Casse said to Barber with a Cheshire cat grin. “I was kidding. I was making that up.”

Well, not totally.

Assuming all goes well in the coming weeks, Casse said “there’s an extremely good shot” War of Will goes to the Belmont Stakes on June 8 in New York. If he wins, he’d be the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to fall short in the Kentucky Derby before capturing the Preakness and Belmont and would be the front-runner for 3-year-old horse of the year.

“It’s the third leg of the Triple Crown, who doesn’t want to win it?” Casse said Sunday. “There are only three Triple Crown races, and they’re pretty important. I think if you can do it you should do it. …

“That’s what we do. We run.”

Those watching the Preakness saw a horse run the entire race and then some after throwing off his jockey out of the starting gate, a scene that – once it was clear rider John Velazquez was OK – served as a reminder of how much thoroughbreds love to run. Bodexpress provided a memorable spectacle as War of Will fulfilled his potential at Pimlico.

The Belmont is another substantial test for the tough and talented War of Will because it’s a third race in six weeks and is the longest of the Triple Crown races at 1+ miles.

There won’t be a Kentucky Derby rematch with Maximum Security, who was disqualified for interfering with War of Will, or Country House, who was placed first and since been sidelined by illness. And two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert said he probably won’t take Improbable to the Belmont after finishing out of the money in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as the favorite.

But War of Will could have to contend with Derby returners Tacitus, Master Fencer and perhaps Baffert’s Game Winner, along with Preakness surprise second-place finisher Everfast, third-place runner Owendale and ninth-place Signalman. Trainer Bill Mott ruled out Country House but is planning to take Tacitus to the Belmont and figures the gray colt will have no problem in a significantly longer race.

“He should handle it fine,” Mott said by phone Saturday. “My guess was that he’d handle the Derby distance fine, which he did. I was pleased. I think it goes the same for the Belmont. I think it’s within his grasp.”

If the Preakness had more than an extra quarter-mile, closers Everfast and Owendale might’ve put a scare into War of Will on Saturday. Everfast was a late entry by trainer Dale Romans three days before the race and opened at 50-1 but showed he might be a good long-distance runner.

“We almost had it,” Everfast jockey Joel Rosario said. “He ran great. We have a great shot at the Belmont.”

Tacitus, Everfast and Owendale will be strong challengers, but this should be War of Will’s Belmont to lose. Had he not endured such a rough trip in and been interfered with at Churchill Downs on May 4, there could be another wave of Triple Crown talk going on right now about a third winner in five years.

But Casse isn’t thinking about that, still grateful War of Will avoided going down in the Derby and was able to rebound and run well in the Preakness. He’ll monitor the horse back at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky, to make sure a sore foot and his energy level are good enough to run in the Belmont on a three-week turnaround.

Casse can’t predict how War of Will responds this time, but he knows what it would mean if the horse comes out on top once again.

“He’s just an athlete,” Casse said. “It would just show that he’s tough and able to overcome things.”

How Bodexpress ran the 2019 Preakness without a jockey

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An already-chaotic Triple Crown season took a surprising turn at the 2019 Preakness Stakes when the No. 9 horse Bodexpress went on a joy ride without his Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.

Just two weeks after Maximum Security‘s historic and controversial disqualification in the 145th Kentucky Derby, War of Will, one of the horses most impacted by Maximum Security in the homestretch turn, crossed the wire first at Pimlico to win the 144th Preakness.

But all eyes were on Bodexpress

The moment the bell rang and the gates flew open, the Kentucky-bred colt jumped out and up, unseating Velazquez. The jockey landed on the dirt but got up and walked off the track under his own power.

“He was just not behaving well in the gate,” Velazquez said after the race. “He wasn’t standing well. He got me against a wall in the gate, and when the doors opened, I was kind of off right from the start and he jumped sideways. And I had my feet out of the irons, so I lost my balance and I went off.”

To the delight of viewers around the world, Bodexpress kept running, minus around 100 pounds of human. He kept pace with the pack for some time before falling back.

See the full race replay of the 144th Preakness Stakes

Horses are herd animals and Bodexpress was bred and trained to run, so it was no surprise that he kept going with the pack.

Outriders, the people on horseback around the track who help control the race surroundings, couldn’t chase him down initially because of how close he was to other horses. They tried to grab him as he turned towards the homestretch, but he dodged the attempt by scooting to the middle of the pack.

The 20-1 shot crossed the wire ahead of Market King, but his trip didn’t end there. He zoomed past horses as they were pulling up and ran an entire extra lap. When all was said and done, he was a little sweaty but in good health.

Stewards briefly flashed the inquiry sign because of his horseplay, but they quickly released it and named War of Will the official winner. Bodexpress was given last placed and named “did not finish.”

Trained by Gustavo Delgado, Bodexpress was a late entry into the Kentucky Derby after morning line favorite Omaha Beach scratched. The 71-1 longshot finished 14th at Churchill and was elevated to 13th. He has never won a race, with or without a jockey.

“I’m good,” Velazquez said. “I’m just disappointed.”

See Larry Collmus, voice of the Triple Crown, call the 144th Preakness