By Dan Ross
Fittingly given California’s tectonic foundations, the massive jolts that have ruptured the racing industry here in the Golden State over the past seven weeks have indeed been seismic, shaking and shifting the very ground into which thousands of trainers, breeders, owners, jockeys, racetrack staff, handicappers, and all others kind of ancillary industry support have set root.
But now as the initial fallout is beginning to lose intensity, so too is the dust beginning to settle on the rearranging landscape, giving many the chance to look around and take stock at the shifts that have also reverberated nationwide. Just this Thursday, a consortium of racetracks around the country announcedthat they are following The Stronach Group’s lead and phasing out the use of Lasix, starting with 2-year-old-racing in 2020, followed by the elimination of Lasix in black-type races the following year.
Top of the pile for many in California is how the past seven weeks have marked a significant reduction in catastrophic breakdowns at the track, when compared to months prior. Between Mar. 11 and Apr. 17, there was one fatality out of 3,622 timed workouts, including routine training. Over three weekends of racing, there was one fatality out of 691 runners.
“Any horses that I have any doubts about, they’re not running,” said Santa Anita racing secretary, Steve Lym, emphasizing the added scrutiny that horses are placed under before racing, and before and after scheduled workouts. “We’ve had horses come back a little funny after they gallop, a vet has checked them out, put them on the vet’s list,” he said. “Those sorts of things are happening every day. People are more cautious. Vets are more vigilant. I think trainers are more vigilant, really.”
Nevertheless, given the significance of the ground-rattling changes, many are concerned about the potential short and long-term ramifications of these changes on the sport, and have already started modifying their usual plans. “The uncertainty is the killer,” said Tim Cohen, of Rancho Temescal and Red Baron’s Barn. “Typically, the past two years I’ve gone to OBS [April sale] and picked up six 2-year-olds each year. I’m not even going to OBS this year. I couldn’t bring myself to invest with such an uncertain future out here.”
In the immediate future, concerns have focused on the number of runners at Santa Anita. The average field sizes for the first two weekends of racing after the hiatus–8.5 and 8.1 respectively–compared favorably to average field sizes over the past three years during the winter/spring meets at the track: 7.85 in 2018, 7.57 in 2017, and 7.77 in 2016, according to DRF data. The average field size for the last weekend of racing was 6.4, however, and DRF has reported that next five Thursday cards have been cancelled due to a lack of race-ready runners.
Is it an issue of inventory? The LA Times reported a reduction of 23.5% from 2018 to 2019 in the number of workers during the week following the Santa Anita Derby. Santa Anita’s own figures show the average daily number of timed workouts in March of this year was 111. In April, the daily average number of timed workouts had dropped to 81. These numbers, of course, don’t paint the full picture.
According to Lym, Santa Anita is “down about 200 horses from peak,” of which between 80-100 of those horses have shipped out of state. What’s more, there are currently between 360-370 horses stabled at San Luis Rey, which is “about the same” as this time last year, said the facility’s general manager, Kevin Habell. He noted, however, that the 2-year-olds have been slower to arrive this year than last.
So, just how significant is the loss of horses? The answer isn’t clear.
Trainers like John Sadler, Bob Baffert, Phil D’Amato, Richard Baltas, Jeff Mullins, Shelbe Ruis, and Doug O’Neill have sent horses to race at either Keeneland or Oaklawn Park, or both. Some will continue to have a presence at Churchill Downs, which begins Apr. 27–this includes trainer Mark Glatt, who will have a squad of 15 horses there, according to the DRF.
Nevertheless, it’s far from uncommon for Santa Anita-based trainers to make their presence felt further east this time of year. “For us it’s actually fewer, ironically, than we took last year,” admitted O’Neill, about the horses he sent to Oaklawn and Keeneland this year. When asked whether he’ll bring his horses back to California when those meets end, O’Neill replied, “it’s not cheap to move horses…. Hopefully, we’ll bring the majority if not all of them back for Del Mar. That’s the plan.”
According to Mick Ruis, his daughter Shelbe will stay a week in Churchill, “and then she’s going back with her horses to Santa Anita.” Ruis added that her stable currently totals 26.
Another issue that a number of trainers and owners raised was the condition book, the unusually large number of “extras” being offered, and the difficulty they’ve had in planning campaigns for their horses when they’re unsure of which races will go.
“It’s hard to train when you don’t know which races are going to be used,” said Baltas, before emphasizing how small fields don’t necessarily equate to easier competition–another possible reason, said Baltas, why California-based trainers might be looking at easier spots for their horses elsewhere. “These are very tough races [at Santa Anita]. Even if you have a small field, you hook really good horses.”
Baltas added that certain types of races “don’t fill that should fill,” and he singled out those for fillies and mares going long on the dirt as especially vulnerable. “I’ve had horses than haven’t run for four months because I can’t get a race to go,” Baltas said.
“What we did was use the current book, and then we added races that were called off,” said Lym, explaining what he sees as one of the reasons for the recent confusion. “That’s something that we’ll get over. Once we settle down, the extras will start coming down, we’ll start using the races in the book. All of those things will get back to normal.”
Getting back to normal might include the re-introduction of the recently axed sub-races, Lym added. “I’m not opposed to that,” he said. “Nothing’s written in stone. If I’m not finding it working, we’ll change it.”
Getting back to normal might also include the track’s unique downhill turf course, which hasn’t been used since the Peter Miller-trained Arms Runner broke down on the course on Mar. 31.
“I think the turf course is in great shape. I think it was a little fast the first weekend, and we’ve changed our maintenance around, to help slow it down a little bit,” Lym said. “Obviously, we needed to explore and see if there was anything wrong with it, and I don’t think there was anything wrong with it.”
There are other reasons the inventory may be reduced. About 40% of trainer William Morey’s horses have left the premises, said Lym, who added that Morey had at one point as many as 30 horses at Santa Anita. The CHRB filed a complaint against Morey, accusing his assistant of administering an alkalinizing agent via a “dose syringe” to two of Morey’s horses on race-day, in violation of CHRB rules.
The extra scrutiny given horses in general may also have had an effect, said Lym. But given the recent reduction in fatalities, a temporary drop in field sizes may be a necessary trade-off if potentially “at risk” horses which might have slipped through the cracks originally are prevented from running and working, he said–just as long as it is temporary.
Jeff Blea, a Santa Anita-based private veterinarian and current chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Racing Committee, said he agreed. “That’s what needs to happen,” he said. “People are doing their jobs. Trainers are doing their jobs. Veterinarians are doing their jobs. People aren’t wanting to push these horses and take those risks like they did before.”
One the flip side, “management needs to recognize that it changes their business model,” Blea added. “It’s going to change their product, and economically, they’re in the business of making money. The same thing is going to happen about the Lasix argument. If we go down that road, people will have to realize there’ll be attrition. It’s going to affect how business at racetracks is done.”
According to Santa Anita-based practicing veterinarian Ryan Carpenter, the changes in the medication rules concerning NSAIDS, intra-articular corticosteroids, and shockwave therapy, haven’t caused attrition in horse numbers. Nevertheless, “there’s been a big shift in that we’re not really injecting anything, because we’re not sure how to incorporate the new rules into daily life,” said Carpenter.
(Interestingly, at Thursday’s CHRB meeting, CHRB equine medical director Rick Arthur, said that “there have been no violations under the new regulation.”)
As to the future, “we’re going to look at horses after they run to prepare them for their next race, instead of looking at horses as they approach the race,” Carpenter said of a fundamental shift in the veterinary approach on the backstretch. “So, it’s going to be a different mind-set that the trainers are going to have to conceptualize and put into practice, and I can tell you that’s a struggle right now.”
When it comes to Lasix, Carpenter said that between 15-20% of horses need more than 5 cubic centimeters (cc’s) of Lasix–the recently introduced threshold, halving the prior limit. “But I can tell you that we ran a lot of horses that routinely needed 8 cc’s on 5, and they tended to handle it well,” he said. “They bled a little bit,” he added. “But the conversation after scoping the horse wasn’t, ‘we’ve got to get the horse out of California.’ It was, ‘okay, we know how to move forward.'”
A notable dynamic among those interviewed for the story was the pendulum of emotions that swung between worry and optimism. “The morale on the backside is as low as I’ve ever seen it,” Blea admitted. And yet, “long term-wise, I think we’re going to be ok. I think we can defend what we’re doing, and I think we can defend it well,” he added.
“It has been a pretty turbulent ride. The intercom system hasn’t worked that good–we haven’t really known what’s going on from the pilots,” said O’Neill, about the lines of communication between Santa Anita management and the horsemen. Yet, he said, “I think we’re starting to get some communication now from the cockpit, and I think the plane ride is getting a little smoother, and hopefully good times are ahead.”
When it comes to the proposed changes to the whip rule, Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza declined to take a position. “Whatever I say, it’s going to be wrong,” he said. “At the moment it’s good,” he added, about the recent low rate of fatalities, before warning that what has occurred these past seven weeks needs to become the norm from here on in. “These things, it can’t be temporary,” he said. “It has to be for the long run.”
TDN reached out to the CHRB for comment on the story but didn’t hear back before deadline.