Horse deaths put Santa Anita under scrutiny on big race day

Leave a comment

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.”

Maximum Security wins Haskell, survives inquiry

1 Comment

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

AP Photo
1 Comment

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.