Tyler Gaffalione has become horse racing’s rising star jockey

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Tyler Gaffalione seems poised to add his name to the list of all-time great jockeys in horse racing that includes Ron Turcotte, Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, John Velazquez and Mike Smith.

While there may not be a specific moment when people in horse racing realized those jockeys would become all-time greats, Gaffalione has had two that stand out for Bailey: July 4, 2017 when the young rider tied the Hall of Famer’s track record with seven victories in a day and May 18, 2019 when he won the Preakness aboard War of Will.

“I think the Preakness will probably be a defining mark in this young man’s career,” Bailey said.

It’s early in a career that’s reaching a crescendo for 24-year-old Gaffalione. The 2015 champion apprentice rider gets another chance to add to his already impressive resume when he rides War of Will in the Belmont on Saturday.

Gaffalione is third generation in the profession after grandfather Bobby rode more than 3,200 times and father Steve won over 800 races over 20 years. As a child, Tyler straddled the armchair of the couch to simulate riding a racehorse.

“I call Tyler the next Johnny Velazquez,” trainer Mark Casse said. “He’s an extremely good athlete. I think he can do a little bit of anything. He’s good on front end, he’s good from coming out, he’s an extremely, extremely strong finisher. And for a young rider, he does a lot of thinking, which is good.”

Gaffalione thinks about everything before and during a race, exhibiting the experience of a seasoned pro. During his masterful ride on Casse-trained and Gary Barber-owned War of Will in the Preakness he kept the horse relaxed and made a perfect move when space opened up at the rail to glide through.

“Like a dream come true,” Gaffalione said. “It’s like everything that you could ever want to happen, happened. I couldn’t believe that it was just right there for me and my horse didn’t hesitate at all. He’s such a fabulous horse and he didn’t hesitate at all and he really came home strong.”

With his family connection to the sport, Gaffalione fell in love with horses while growing up in Davie, Florida. His first time on a horse was at the Ocala tracks Cardinal Hill and Classic Mile when he was 11. He begged his dad to let him ride for real and a year or two later he did.

Gaffalione’s first race was Sept. 5, 2014 at Florida’s Gulfstream Park. He has had 6,448 mounts since with 1,094 victories and 23 graded stakes winners.

At age 20, Gaffalione won what amounts to the Eclipse Award’s rookie of the year honors when he won 217 races and over $5.8 million in earnings in 2015 facing tough competition at Gulfstream Park.

“Mentally I’m so much stronger than I used to be,” Gaffalione said. “I used to let things get to me when I’d lose races. I would get a little bummed out. … I just always expected so much more of myself and I wanted to be the best rider possible. I have a lot more confidence in my decision-making, a lot more patience I would say and I think it helped tremendously. But I’ve had great support around me.”

Gaffalione faced a huge test in the aftermath of the historic Kentucky Derby disqualification of Maximum Security for interfering with War of Will. While Gaffalione likely avoided what could’ve been a catastrophic pileup , Maximum Security’s owner Gary West blamed Gaffalione for his role in the first in-race DQ in the 145-year history of the Run for the Roses.

Casse and Barber reached out to Gaffalione to reassure him, and Barber even put out a statement defending him.

“I called Tyler when it all came out,” Casse said. “I said, `Tyler don’t let this bother you, whatever, don’t worry about.’ He’s tough. But it’s hard not to let it bother you a little. He was good.”

Gaffalione built up a thick skin and also earned a lot of professional respect from Bailey, who’s now an analyst for NBC Sports. Bailey congratulated Gaffalione on social media when he tied his wins record and shared some advice when they ran into each other at the track a few years back.

“I made a couple of suggestions to him just generally, not riding races per se, but just philosophically about the ascension and the timeline of his career and kind of where I thought his place was,” Bailey said. “I told him I thought he belonged in New York. I believed that then. I believe it now.”

Keeping his horse relaxed like in the Preakness is what Gaffalione considers the biggest key to the Belmont, which is the longest of the Triple Crown races at a mile and a half over the massive track known as “Big Sandy.” Because he predominantly rides in Kentucky, Gaffalione hasn’t been in a race at Belmont Park since Oct. 13.

Bailey proactively gave Gaffalione advice about how to handle the Belmont from his long career based in New York.

“It’s still a challenge to us riding in the Belmont Stakes – a mile and a half race – because we don’t do it very often,” Bailey said. “That is a totally different animal. I expressed this to Tyler: I have seen some really good riders go in there and make some basic mistakes. It’s almost always because of the size of the track and the location of where they move and the reason for it is lack of experience over Belmont.”

Gaffalione, who appears unflappable in the face of chaos during a race, is set to embrace the challenge. There’s no place he would rather be than riding a thoroughbred.

“I just love everything about it,” Gaffalione said. “There’s no better feeling. The thing I love about it is within that moment, that’s really all you think about. All the outside distractions kind of go away. I love everything about it: the horses, the people, atmosphere, everything. You just can’t beat it.”

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.