By Dan Ross
As Jerry Hollendorfer seeks judicial intervention to enable him to stable and race his horses at Golden Gate Fields, court filings make clear the arguments both sides are setting forth. Tangled among the various legal arguments are The Stronach Group (TSG)'s charges against the trainer's professional ethics, while Hollendorfer's team question the veracity of those assertions, as well as TSG's own managerial competency.
Back in June, Santa Anita management told the trainer to remove his horses from the TSG-owned facility, along with some 60 horses from Golden Gate Fields. The action was taken after four Hollendorfer-trained horses were catastrophically injured at Santa Anita during a six-month period, along with two at Golden Gate since November of last year. During this time, Hollendorfer has had no formal regulatory ruling against him.
The hearing was originally scheduled for last Friday at the Alameda County Superior Court, but the judge postponed it until Friday, Aug. 30, for more time to read the extensive court filings. The judge also gave both sides a week to file additional briefs.
The California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT) are co-plaintiffs alongside Hollendorfer. According to CTT legal representative Darrell Vienna, the backbone of their argument surrounds the 2018-2019 race-meet agreement that the CTT and the Pacific Racing Association entered into in November of last year.
“I think the most important issue before the court during this ex parte application is whether there is a breach of contract, and that contract is the race meet agreement,” Vienna told the TDN. “There has been a clear breach of the contract, and that is, they have excluded a person without the consent of the CTT. They never asked for the consent, and at this point, it has never been given.”
In an additional filing Friday, TSG argues that the plaintiffs “simply” aren't entitled to a preliminary injunction. “No injunction is necessary to preserve the status quo, as the status quo is that Hollendorfer is not presently stabling, training or racing his horses at Golden Gate Fields,” writes attorney Richard Specter.
Nevertheless, the TSG's initial court filings lay out arguments of a much more personal nature. In them, company representatives and an official veterinarian advance a series of claims that question the ethical approach of Hollendorfer's operation.
What appears the most damning testimony comes from California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) official veterinarian Dana Stead, who writes that on the morning of May 18 of this year, jockey Rafael Bejarano worked the Hollendorfer-trained Blackjackcat (Tale of the Cat) five furlongs, after which the horse pulled up lame on its right front.
According to Stead, Bejarano alerted him of the incident, and the following morning–the day the horse was entered to race–Stead examined Blackjackcat at Hollendorfer's barn, where the trainer's assistant Dan Ward was overseeing operations. Stead said he found the horse to be a “three on a scale of five lame at the jog” on the right front leg.
“I asked Dan Ward why Mr. Hollendorfer had entered the horse in this condition, and Ward's response was 'he was much worse yesterday, we were hoping that if we could get him right by the race, great, if not, we'd scratch,'” said Stead's filing. “They were working on the hopeful assumption that the horse had just 'hit himself in the work.'”
According to Stead, CHRB official veterinarian Tim Grande examined the horse May 23, and found swelling in the leg. As a result, the horse was scratched, and an ultrasound was ordered which revealed a “20% core lesion to the superficial digital flexor tendon,” Stead claims. “In my opinion, Blackjackcat never should never have been entered to race following that May 18 workout.”
Hollendorfer's team filed Friday a number of supporting declarations by respected veterinarians, trainers, jockeys and owners–including Art Sherman, Doug O'Neill, and owners Terry Finley and Frank Stronach–that attest to the Hall of Famer's character and his professional record. In his own filing, Hollendorfer disputes the various claims made against him, saying there were “incorrect or false representations in all,” including Stead's.
Hollendorfer paints a picture whereby Stead had agreed with Blackjackcat's treatment plan, and that no diagnostic tests had been conducted prior to the horse being scratched “because doing so would require the horse be tranquilized, and all were concerned that might lead to a 'positive test,” if the horse competed.
“On August 8, 2019, I spoke with Dr. Dana Stead while at Del Mar,” Hollendorfer writes. “At that time, Dr. Stead advised me that at no time did he feel me or my barn had attempted to hide any injury to Blackjackcat or do something unprofessional or unsafe with the horse.”
Hollendorfer further claims that “Dr. Stead stated that he was aware throughout the week that the horse remained in training and that I and my barn would not object to Blackjactcat being scratched if there were any concerns about the horse's condition later in the week.”
In his filing, Stead also claims that he had been informed “by the official veterinarian's secretary” of a “disturbing conversation” that person had overheard “involving Mr. Hollendorfer's barn.” According to Stead, the substance of this alleged conversation involved one of Hollenderfer's personal veterinarians being coerced into signing a pre-workout slip to remove a horse from the veterinarian's list.
“Specifically,” Stead claims in the filing, “Dan Ward, Hollendorfer's assistant, advised this personal veterinarian that they needed to sign the form, or else the Hollendorfer barn would find another veterinary practice that would be willing to do so. The veterinarian signed the above-mentioned form and submitted it to the official veterinarian; however noted in the comments that they felt the horse was not sound to perform said workout. In my opinion, this is an improper practice by the Hollendorfer barn, and is not consistent with honest and safe practices in the horse racing industry.”
Jennifer Finley, one of Hollendorfer's regular veterinarians at Santa Anita, argues that it was TSG who had pressured Hollendorfer to take actions that weren't in the best interests of horse welfare. “An example of his concern was highlighted recently when Santa Anita officials pressurized him to allow them to purchase an injured horse, rather than to permit me to humanely euthanize the horse,” she writes.
“To his credit, Jerry did not give in to those representatives because he made clear that he wanted to do what was humane and right for an obvious critically injured horse, regardless of the consequences he would eventually face from Santa Anita officials,” Finley adds.
In her 34-page declaration, Dionne Benson, TSG's Chief Veterinary Officer, claims that two Hollendorfer-trained horses catastrophically injured–Kochees (Lion Heart) and American Currency (Exchange Rate)–had pre-existing injuries that should have been detected sooner. Specifically, her filing states, “In my opinion, Kochees would have likely shown lameness after his last workout, which should have been observed by the trainer and triggered a request to have a veterinarian diagnose the source of the lameness. Mr. Hollendorfer failed to do so, and instead entered Kochees in a race, leading to his demise.”
In TSG's initial filing, there's also repeated mention of a meeting on June 22, the day American Currency was fatally injured, between TSG representatives and Hollendorfer in which was allegedly discussed the trainer's recent equine fatalities. TSG COO Tim Ritvo writes in his filing how “Mr. Hollendorfer was given ample opportunity to state his case, but was unable to provide satisfactory answers,” which led to Hollendorfer's exclusion from Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields.
Hollendorfer disputes the substance of that meeting. “That meeting lasted little more than five minutes,” Hollendorfer writes, adding that he wasn't given the opportunity to explain his training and safety methods, nor the circumstances surrounding the equine fatalities. “Mr. Ritvo began the meeting by apologizing, saying, 'It hurts me to have to do this, but [TSG President] Belinda Stronach wants you out,'” after which he was given 72 hours to remove his horses from TSG's California facilities, Hollendorfer writes.
Furthermore, Kim Kuhlmann–one of Hollendorfer's regular veterinarians in Northern California–disputes Benson's claim that it would have been possible to identify Kochees's pre-existing injuries. “I find that opinion to be unfounded and incorrect, given that I am told she never actually, personally examined that horse or had reason to have contemporaneous personal knowledge of the horse's health and condition,” Kuhlmann writes.
Jeff Blea, a practicing veterinarian and current chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, supports Kuhlmann's assessment that it is irresponsible to opine on a horse's condition without having examined it.
He adds: “The effort to single out and blame Jerry Hollendorfer for the tragedies he experienced is inappropriate,” he writes, calling the contributing factors to the deaths as multifactorial. “A confluence of problems that included not only equine health and medication issues, but surface and racing program management, and a host of others.”
In another twist, Frank Stronach, who's currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute with his daughter, Belinda, over control of TSG, adds fuel to the fire with his own declaration that takes square aim at the competency of Santa Anita management.
Included is a letter Stronach wrote to the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, which is currently investigating the equine fatalities at Santa Anita. TSG, Stronach writes, “chose to maximize profits instead of investing in measures that would have enhanced safety. By doing so, management at The Stronach Group inflicted incredible damage on the reputation of the horse industry. Their failure to take action has resulted in the needless deaths of numerous racehorses and has shaken the public trust in the sport of horse racing.”