Belmont features one of the safest racing surfaces in U.S.

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The home of the Belmont Stakes is laps ahead of other U.S. racetracks when it comes to keeping horses safe.

Belmont Park and other tracks around the state of New York have had some of the fewest horse deaths in the sport. Amid the 26 horse deaths at California’s Santa Anita Park since late December, the Belmont will be run Saturday on a track that national observers say is among the safest and best maintained in the country.

A major reason for the high praise is the attention given to Belmont Park’s dirt and turf track surfaces by Glen Kozak, senior vice president of facilities and racing surfaces at the New York Racing Association.

“They’ve just turned the corner and not all the racetracks have kind of turned that corner where they feel like this is how they manage it,” said Dr. Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Lexington, Kentucky. “And that’s really where they’re in the lead.”

Belmont Park’s 2018 fatality rate of 0.98 per 1,000 starts is significantly under the national average of 1.68, and there hasn’t been a fatal breakdown in the Belmont, the third race of the Triple Crown, since 1993. Compare that to a 2.42 fatality rate at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, and 2.33 at Pimlico Race Course, which hosts the Preakness.

Tyler Gaffalione, who won the Preakness aboard War of Will, has ridden at Belmont Park 66 times and raves about the surfaces being consistent. The right mix of clay, silt and moisture helps horses run evenly across the track.

“I love the track at Belmont,” Gaffalione said. “Every time I’ve gone there it’s been very consistent. It feels like every horse gets over it well. It plays fairly. You can be in front. You can come from behind. I think they do a tremendous job.”

The Belmont has not had a fatal breakdown since 1993.

Kozak and his team use technology and old-fashion grit to make the track surfaces consistent.

They keep copious amounts of data using ground-penetrating radar and sensors that track the moisture content in the tracks. They also have a weather station that tracks rainfall and wind speed. In addition to the advanced information, Kozak puts the onus on his employees to pay attention to details when watering or raking the 1 +-mile dirt oval and separate training track, or filling divots on one of the two turf courses.

“You are impacting either horses’ lives or human lives,” Kozak said. “As far as reducing (injuries and deaths), we’re just one of the pieces of that puzzle, for sure. The focus is always on the surface, but it’s the training in the morning, it’s the veterinarians that take care of the horses, it’s the blacksmiths that shoe the horses, it’s the exercise riders that possibly can feel a problem before it becomes a catastrophic problem.”

Belmont Park has not experienced a catastrophic trend since a spate of breakdowns in 2011-12. Because of the changes made since, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has endorsed the work New York racing is doing in conjunction with the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Kentucky.

“The evidence is very clear that the investment and the persistence and the insistence of putting forth the very, very best industry racing surfaces at Belmont Park,” said Steve Koch, the NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance executive director who has repeatedly said one horse death is one too many. “At Belmont Park, NYRA racing, Glen Kozak and his team and the way they do things up there, that is going to be our industry benchmark.”

It’s not just about the Belmont Stakes, though that is when the spotlight shines brightest on the massive track in New York. Limiting injuries caused by the surface arguably is more important than ever given the current climate around horse racing and how many casual fans may tune in for Saturday’s race.

Peterson describes what’s happening in New York as a positive “culture change.” He said consistent surfaces are important because horses with their long strides take longer to adapt to changes from softer to harder tracks, or vice versa, than humans. Peterson compares it to someone missing a step off a curb – but is far worse for a horse.

Kozak’s work is not proprietary, he assists other tracks.

“In this industry, it’s a reflection on everybody, so the more that we can do and the more helpful and to outline the best practices that we do, a bunch of different jurisdictions have been in contact with what we do or how we do it or where we bought our horse ambulance or how we built our water truck,” Kozak said. “I’m an open book. Our information isn’t secret by any means, and if it can help another jurisdiction to make a surface better or to help the industry, it’s the best thing for everybody.”

Gaffalione expects other tracks to pick up some of what Belmont is laying down on its surfaces.

“They definitely are the elite,” the jockey said. “They hold themselves to a higher standard that others will soon follow.”

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.