Santa Anita to Re-Open Mar. 22

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Santa Anita

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Barring any further problems with the main track, Santa Anita will resume racing Mar. 22, The Stronach Group's COO Tim Ritvo told the TDN. In addition, the main track will re-open for training Monday.

Though the track has been deemed ready, TSG delayed the re-opening until Mar. 22 to give horsemen time to get their horses fit after the interruptions in training.

“[Former Santa Anita track superintendent] Dennis Moore thinks the track is perfect,” Ritvo said. “In fact, he said it is 100%. The point is, I think we're in really good shape.”

The Mar. 9 card that was canceled because of concerns for the track conditions included several stakes races. Ritvo said the GII San Felipe S. will not be run this year. The GI Santa Anita H. will be contested. Ritvo said it will likely be part of the GI Santa Anita Derby card April 6. He said every attempt will be made to reschedule all the races, except the San Felipe, that were scrapped while the track has been shut down.

Since the meet opened Dec. 26, 21 horses have been euthanized, either after training in the morning or during the races. Santa Anita brought in track specialist Mick Peterson and closed the track for training for all but a few hours over a three-day period. After Peterson said he could not find anything wrong with track, Santa Anita resumed racing Feb. 28. After racing resumed, two more horses died and the decision was again made to shut down. Moore, who had only recently retired as Santa Anita's track superintendent, was then brought in to go over the track and look for problems and solutions.

Once Moore told Stronach executives that he felt the track was safe the decision was made to resume racing Mar. 22.

“Dennis said that if the track were only 99% he'd tell me and he'd fix the 1%,” Ritvo said. “But he is confident the track is 100%.”

For the first few days the main track is open, horses will only be allowed to jog or gallop over it. However, horses will be allowed to work on the training track starting Monday. Ritvo added that if there are any problems once the main track re-opens for training, the decision to race Mar. 22 will be re-evaluated.

With Peterson and Moore both failing to find any problems with the racing surface, the Santa Anita team has concluded that the severe wet weather in recent weeks is at the root of the problems. Santa Anita has had to seal the track on several occasions because of the rain. Ritvo said that, in the future, when there is an overabundance of rain, consideration will be given to canceling racing.

“We are continuing to compile data,” he said. “It's our belief that these tracks don't perform well when they have to be sealed. We are considering that if we have a situation where we have a lot of rain and we have to seal the track we may consider not running. It would be almost like a snow day in New York. We worry that the mixture, the combination that makes up this track, unlike the Northeast tracks, is made for the warmer, desert-like weather. And when we have to float it we tighten it up. These horses run over it and they all seem to come back well. We are worried it's not how they come back that day, it's what happens to them in the future. We're going to be much more conscious of the sealed track days and maybe not running.”

Ritvo said that Santa Anita will take several measures to improve its record on safety issues, including hiring a director of equine health and welfare. But most of the track's efforts to improve safety will revolve morning training. Ritvo noted that more than half of the fatalities occurred in the mornings.

“Morning workouts are never monitored,” he said. “We're going to be asking people to report and get permission to work. If everything is normal, they'll be allowed to work. If there are ones with suspicious activity, like inconsistent work patterns, they will be flagged and they would have to be examined before they can work. And there may be some horses we decide we don't need here anymore. We're going to try to enhance our protocols in the mornings. We think our protocols are pretty stringent in the afternoon and we think the CHRB and their team have done a really good inspecting horses, so we are going to focus more on making sure the morning activities are more regulated.”

Santa Anita is also looking to enact a rule that after a horse is claimed the previous trainer must turn over its vet records to the new trainer.

“We've done this in other jurisdictions,” he said. “When horses get claimed and get passed around the vet records should be passed along with them. Then the new trainer will be able to see some of the issues the prior trainer had to deal with. There was initially some push back to this in Florida, then everybody started to like it.”

When Ritvo was brought to Santa Anita by The Stronach Group his mission was to improve handle. The easiest way to do is to increase field size, even if that means carding more cheap races. Some trainers have said they believed that was part of the problem and that they often felt pressured to run their horses when they might not be fully confident the timing was right.

“No one is ever threatened or ever made to run a horse,” Ritvo said. “Everyone makes their own decision in the end. Obviously, we were pushing for bigger fields because we were losing market share and handle. The customer wants bigger fields. What we did is cheapen up the program a little bit and we took some flak for that. We'll have to revisit that. All of those criticisms I'll take and evaluate. I don't have all the answers. Wherever I go, I try to improve the product, which means getting more purses for the horsemen, which is done by increasing handle with larger fields. We want people to participate. If you have stalls you should run at the track you're at and not just stable there. The truth of the matter is we want people to participate, but we would never force anyone to run.”

The breakdowns and the closing of the track has been a public relations nightmare for Santa Anita. The problems have received almost daily attention on Los Angeles television stations, the New York Times weighed in with a negative article and there have been protestors outside the track.

Ritvo said that, among insiders, the criticism that bothered him the most was the finger pointing directed at track superintendent Andy LaRocco, who took over for Moore.

“People are saying Dennis wasn't here and that's why this happened,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Andy is a top guy. He came in and had to deal with a very difficult situation where there was 16 inches of rain.”

On the mainstream media, Ritvo saw sharks looking for blood.

“Unfortunately, the news media was looking for a train wreck,” he said. “They sit out here and wait for something bad to happen. During the time when we had two Triple Crown winners stabled here, we saw one camera crew. It's not just racing. It's every aspect of journalism. Bad news sells and good news doesn't get the coverage it deserves.”

 

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