By Bill Finley
Trainer Doug O’Neill has finalized plans to send a string of horses not just to Dubai but to Oaklawn Park. Between the two racing venues, O’Neill will be pulling upwards of 30 horses out of Santa Anita early next year and told the TDN he would not be doing so if not for his concern about the way that the racetrack is being run.
“The biggest thing is that the environment is such that the leadership at Santa Anita is requiring a lot of the horsemen and asking them to make changes,” he said. “That’s great. We all want the same thing. The flip side of that is that we’ve got nothing coming from the higher ups. I don’t want to be left standing there twiddling my thumbs while they are trying to figure out what to do.”
O’Neill said that he has grown tired of what he calls a lack of communication from Santa Anita executives and a failure to properly promote and market the sport.
“I don’t want to speak for everybody, but that’s my biggest frustration, that there’s a lack of communication from the higher ups and a lack of promoting and marketing of the great sport of horse racing in California,” he said. “It’s extremely frustrating. I’ve tried to express that to them. But until, I guess, they feel more pressure they won’t change. They want everyone else to change, but they’re going to keep doing the same thing. I’m just trying to plan what I can do with the horses or staff. Honest to God, until they, and I don’t even know who they are, maybe it’s Belinda Stronach or whatever, but until they have a vision and are proud of what they are running, it feels to me like we are all a part of a Dick Francis novel.”
When asked for a comment in light of O’Neill’s remarks, Santa Anita Chief Strategy Officer Aidan Butler said he understood the trainer’s frustration, but defended his management team.
“Obviously, Doug is really liked by everyone at Santa Anita and has been a big supporter of California racing,” Butler said. “These have been troubling times and I’m disappointed that Doug isn’t satisfied. From a marketing standpoint, when I sit down with Belinda Stronach and the rest of the team, we all want to make sure that we are extra proud of everything that happens here. We know we all could be doing better. I believe that horse racing has a place and we will make it so that it is thought of fondly by our fans and the public. As for a lack of communication, in a situation like the one we are in currently, a lot of times it is not easy to get your message out. I have been speaking to the horsemen and I have told them that the communication needs to improve. I get it. People are frustrated. But I assure you we are giving it everything we have got in order to emphasize the future of the sport. That means making racing as safe as we possibly can. I wish we had a magic wand. We don’t.”
Seventeen O’Neill-trained horses have been nominated to races during the Dubai Racing Carnival. He said he is not sure if all will make the trip to the Middle East, expecting that he will send a string consisting of 12 to 15 horses. O’Neill will become the first U.S.-based trainer to send a large group of horses to race exclusively in Dubai for an extended period of time. He said he plans on also sending between 12 and 15 horses to Oaklawn.
“The owners are excited, the crew is excited and I am excited,” he said. “With all the uncertainly at Santa Anita, it’s nice having some control over something good like this. I know there are six or seven barns from here that are sending horses to Oaklawn. The majority of horsemen are trying to make a plan with their stables. It’s not just a great sport, it’s a business, so you just have to keep the jobs going, keep the horses and the men and women who work beside them going.”
The purses at Santa Anita do not match up to those offered in either Dubai or at Oaklawn, but O’Neill said that was not a major factor in his decision.
“Not really. I’m blessed that I have the type of owners who would race if there was no prize money,” he said. “The purses are tremendous at Oaklawn and in Dubai, which makes the traveling make sense. It would be nice if the purses in Southern California went up, but I think that’s probably about fifth on my list of what’s most important. It’s more the leadership and the marketing and there being a situation where everyone has more of a positive, trusting relationship with one another rather than what we have. All you hear is a bunch of rumors and you have a bunch of worried staff and people. It’s really important for the horses and for the crew to make a plan where there is some sort of direction you can control rather than just waiting and wondering if the plane is going to land safely or slam into the mountain.”
Even with so many of his horses leaving Santa Anita, O’Neill said he will still have about 40-50 horses based there over the winter and that he plans to bring the Oaklawn and Dubai horses back there in the spring. Fearing that there will be repercussions, horsemen are often afraid to criticize management, but O’Neill felt it was important to speak his mind.
“I know that if it was me in their position, I would just be getting crushed,” he said. “They are big enough boys and girls to handle the reality of it. I’m in knee deep and I can tell you from my inner circle of people that everybody is saying what the heck is going on? Is that inflammatory? If they were listening into this phone call would I say the same thing? The answer is yes.”
Since a rash of breakdowns earlier this year created a crisis situation at Santa Anita, which put the track and the entire sport into the cross hairs of animal rights activists and politicians, management has been instituting reforms that it hopes will lead to safer racing. The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, has also promoted Butler and put him in charge of the day-to-day operation of the track and hired Craig Fravel to head its racing operations.