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Group seeks to infuse youth into aging horse racing industry

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Dare Sutton and Sam Bussanich watched the horses run at Keeneland Racecourse and a crazy idea came to mind.

Sutton, 24, suggested they buy one. Bussanich was game.

“We’re both young,” said Bussanich, 21. “We both make stupid decisions. Why not?”

They soon discovered buying a horse was too lofty a goal, but that conversation sparked a move horse racing officials hope can help change the face of the sport during a turbulent time. Along with friend Sophie Shore, they founded Nexus Racing Club to give 18- to 30-year-olds a chance to get into the sport through exclusive access, networking events and connections to those who run the industry.

Amid the uproar over fatalities at Santa Anita , the Kentucky Derby disqualification, challenges from expanded legalized sports gambling and an aging fan base, horse racing badly needs an infusion of youth. Now, these young women have the chance to help revive what’s sometimes referred to as a dying sport.

“Young people can bring new creative ideas to the sport,” said Jaime Roth, who runs her family’s LNJ Foxwoods stable. “Are there bad things? Yeah. But for the most part, it’s a great sport. We’re dependent on the future and young women are a big part of the future.”

Bussanich firmly believes “if we don’t get these young people into the sport, we’re not going to have horse racing.” A 2016 study noted the average horse racing fan is 63 , – younger only than golf – and decision makers, owners and trainers are still prominently older white men.

“We constantly sit around board room tables and say, `How are we going to get more young people involved in horse racing?”‘ owner and Thoroughbred Ideas Foundation president and CEO said Craig Bernick said. “I’m the youngest person around the table a lot of times and I’m 41.”

Nexus is full of people horse racing executives yearn to attract: Bussanich grew up in New Jersey and developed her affection for the sport from going to a track in Florida at age 6; Sutton fell in love when filly Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont and Nexus member relations director Mary Cage was hooked by Smarty Jones’ underdog story during the 2004 Triple Crown.

Horse racing is so often a passion passed down generationally. The Nexus co-founders are trying to break down what they see as a high barrier into the industry.

“We just hope to show people that you don’t just have to be born into this sport,” said Sutton, who’s midway through optometry school at Indiana University. “You don’t have to be super rich or anything. That’s what we hope to do is just make it accessible, see that it is a possibility to get involved and enjoy this sport.”

Money is an obstacle. Training for high-profile thoroughbreds can cost upward of $34,000 a year, and Nexus’ first graded stakes race winner, Cruel Intention, was bought by LNJ Foxwoods and partners for $200,000.

That’s why in the almost three years since that fateful day at the track, the idea evolved from pooling money for a horse into a membership that partners with established owners on horses. It’s $100 to join, and while there’s no money in it when a Nexus horse wins a race, members can visit the barns and paddock, get daily updates and maybe even be in the winner’s circle – many perks of ownership without the hefty cost.

“A lot of people looked at us funny when we were like, `Oh, we’re going to have no money in these horses,”‘ said Bussanich, who is an equine and marketing double major at the University of Kentucky and works for Preakness-winning trainer Mark Casse. “For young people, it’s not a business. It’s getting to be able to touch a horse, be able to go to the races, be able to go into the paddock. We don’t need monetary involvement in the sport for it to be special for us.”

Bussanich says millennials and Generation Z want to feel special and suggests ideas like college ticket pricing and exclusive opportunities like she found at Royal Ascot in England last fall. Betting is confusing to her, but she believes visceral experiences are more important: her tears of joy when Casse’s War of Will won the Preakness, a horse’s breath helping a fan bond individually with the animal.

The industry is grappling with ideas to attract more bettors. Nexus is attempting to attract fans with an insider’s view of the sport.

“They get to come out to the barn in the mornings if they want, just show them what’s going on. I just thought it was pretty neat,” said owner and trainer Dallas Stewart, whose filly Diamond Crazy is part of the program.

Bernick, Roth, Stewart and Starlight Racing’s Jack Wolf were among the first to team up with Nexus, which now has over 70 members and connections to eight horses.

“I’d like them to have 5,000 because if this were available when I was growing up, I would’ve jumped for it,” said Bernick, who operates Glenn Hill Farm, which was started by his grandfather.

Sutton says she hopes the company that brought the women together can also lead to more women calling shots at higher levels of the sport.

“You’re starting to see more and more women become successful in this industry, whether it be owners or trainers or jockeys,” Cage said. “The more we can get this younger generation involved in this sport, the more of that you’re going to see because you hear about horse-crazy little girls and a lot of us don’t grow out of that phase. We’re just going to keep seeing more of that.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont Stakes, not the 2017 race.

Santa Anita season ends after 30 horse deaths, trainer ban

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Santa Anita’s troubled racing season has come to a close after the deaths of 30 horses at the Southern California track rattled the industry and led to Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer being banned when four of his horses were among the casualties.

There were no incidents during morning training hours or in the 10 races Sunday.

About 20 protesters briefly toted signs outside an entrance to the track, calling attention to the deaths and condemning the sport.

Hollendorfer had two horses entered to run closing day, but they, along with two others Saturday, were scratched by track stewards on the recommendation of a special panel convened to review horses’ medical, training and racing history.

The 73-year-old trainer was ordered by The Stronach Group to remove his horses from Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, which are owned by the company. The fourth death in his stable during the meet occurred Saturday.

Track ownership said Hollendorfer was “no longer welcome to stable, race, or train his horses at any of our facilities.”

No one from The Stronach Group spoke to the media Sunday despite a request. The company said a statement would be forthcoming in a few days.

Racing next moves to Los Alamitos in Orange County beginning June 29, where the California Horse Racing Board said a panel will review horses entered to run there.

That track will “gladly” provide stalls to Hollendorfer, whom track owner Edward Allred called “an unexcelled horseman.”

“Unless forbidden by the California Horse Racing Board, we intend to permit entries from Hollendorfer,” Allred said in a statement. “We do not feel he should be a scapegoat for a problem which derives from a number of factors.”

Still unknown is whether Hollendorfer would be allowed to train at Del Mar near San Diego, which opens its summer meet July 17. A track spokesman said Sunday a decision had yet to be made. Neither Los Alamitos nor Del Mar is owned by The Stronach Group.

Racing at Santa Anita is set to resume Sept. 27. The track is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup world championships on Nov. 1-2.

The Breeders’ Cup board of directors is expected to meet this week to discuss this year’s location.

The fatalities at Santa Anita since Dec. 26 have raised alarm within California and the rest of the racing industry. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently stepped in to direct the formation of the special panel to evaluate horses’ histories before they race. Track and racing board officials implemented several changes involving exams of horses scheduled to train or race.

The racing board also is looking at changes involving jockeys’ use of a riding crop in a race.

Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux was fined $100 by the stewards for violating a CHRB rule that prohibits use of a crop more than three times in succession without giving the horse a chance to respond. The violation occurred in the eighth race Saturday.

Bob Baffert, the two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer, recently traveled to Sacramento to meet legislators concerned about the horse deaths. The majority occurred during the winter months when usually arid Santa Anita was hit with record rainfall totaling nearly a foot.

Trainers like Doug O’Neill, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, are dismayed that the sport is under fire amid a drumbeat of negativity.

“The important thing is that they are accidents and accidents happen,” O’Neill said. “I can you tell in the 32 years I’ve been back here I’ve never seen one case of an abuse.”

About 500 backstretch workers rallied on Thursday to ask for help in protecting their jobs, emphasize their commitment to the horses in their care and their support of the recent rules changes.

O’Neill and Baffert support the workers, many of whom come from Mexico and Guatemala.

“Right now I’m worried about keeping these horses and keeping people here,” Baffert said. “If it went away, I worry about all these unemployed people.”

O’Neill noted there are good things done by the racing industry but “it’s just unfortunate that very little of that is talked about.”

He lamented what he perceives as a lack of transparency by Santa Anita management about what’s happening.

“You’d like to hear more dialogue between all the different factions that are involved,” O’Neill said. “It seems like there’s these small little groups that have all the power. They have their private meetings and none of it gets trickled down to us what the heck is going on.”

The Stronach Group has moved to reduce the use of anti-bleeding medication Lasix on race days. Going further, there’s been a proposal to eliminate Lasix in 2-year-old horses starting next year.

“Racing needs Santa Anita to work,” Baffert said. “Santa Anita is so important. If something happens here, it affects everything.”

Hall of Fame trainer banned at Santa Anita after horse death

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was banned by the ownership of Santa Anita on Saturday after a fourth horse from his stable died – and the 30th overall – at the Southern California track.

The Stronach Group, which owns the track, said in a statement that effective immediately Hollendorfer “is no longer welcome to stable, race or train his horses at any of our facilities.”

On the recommendation of a special panel convened to review horses’ medical, training and racing history, the track’s stewards scratched four horses trained by Hollendorfer that were entered to run Saturday and Sunday.

A 4-year-old gelding trained by Hollendorfer was injured Saturday while exercising on the training track and was euthanized. It was the first death of the meet on the training track, which isn’t used for racing.

It was the 30th death since the racing season began Dec. 26. The track closes for the season Sunday.

The high number fatalities have led officials at Santa Anita and the California Horse Racing Board to initiate several measures to address horse and rider safety. The spate of deaths has drawn national political attention, including from Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who has called for racing to stop while training and racing conditions are inspected.

Hollendorfer couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

However, he told the Daily Racing Form, “I’m training over 100 horses right now. Santa Anita didn’t want me stay on the grounds. My opinion was that was a premature thing to do. I thought it was extreme. Now I have to step away for a while.”

The special panel rejected 38 horses that were set to run over the final six days of racing, according to the California Horse Racing Board. The panel was created last week at the direction of Newsom.

Hollendorfer has 7,617 winners from 33,519 starters and purse earnings of $199,737,768 in his career, according to Equibase.com.

He has three wins in the Breeders’ Cup and none in the Triple Crown races. His best finish with seven Kentucky Derby starters was third in 2017 with Battle of Midway. That colt sustained a fatal injury during a workout at Santa Anita on Feb. 23.

Hollendorfer’s first horse to die at the meet was a 4-year-old gelding on Dec. 30 after a race on the dirt.

It wasn’t immediately known whether Hollendorfer will be allowed to race at Los Alamitos in Orange County when that meet opens June 29. A spokesman for Del Mar said the track was aware of Hollendorfer’s ban and was gathering information. Del Mar near San Diego opens July 17. Neither track is owned by The Stronach Group.

The racing board says a panel also will review horses entered to run at Los Alamitos.

A 9-year-old gelding named Kochees trained by Hollendorfer was euthanized on May 26 after injuring his left front leg in a race a day earlier.

At the time, a spokesman for The Stronach Group told The Associated Press that it was looking into whether new protocols were followed leading up to the gelding being euthanized.

The Stronach Group said in a statement Saturday it regrets that Hollendorfer’s record in recent months at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California “has become increasingly challenging and does not match the level of safety and accountability we demand.” Both tracks are owned by The Stronach Group; Golden Gate doesn’t resume racing until Aug. 15.

The track owner said individuals who don’t embrace the new rules and safety measures that put horse and rider safety above all else will have no place at any Stronach Group racetrack.

Mike Marten, spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, said Hollendorfer’s gelding American Currency injured Saturday wasn’t entered to run in any race and thus wasn’t subject to review by the special panel.

Kochees’ injury appeared to be correctable through surgery. However, when doctors realized the horse had lost blood flow to the leg, he was euthanized.

Among the rules put in place since March, a trainer’s veterinarian must sign off on a horse’s fitness before the track’s veterinarian also takes a look at the animal ahead of it training or racing.

“In my mind there is absolutely no doubt that we’ve done every single thing properly with Kochees and all the rest of our horses, too,” Hollendorfer said in response to questioning by The AP on May 27. “We certainly are pretty sad when they get hurt.”

The 73-year-old trainer is best known for overseeing Eclipse Award winners Blind Luck, Shared Belief and Songbird. Based in Northern California for most of his career, Hollendorfer frequently ships his horses to Southern California’s tracks to run.

He’s known for buying young horses at auction in the low to mid-price range, often with his own money. He then puts together ownership groups and retains a percentage of the horse while training it as well.