By Dan Ross
This Sunday marks a year to the day Battle of Midway (Smart Strike) suffered catastrophic injuries during a morning workout at Santa Anita, unleashing a tempest of opprobrium the likes of which the industry has never before faced in terms of intensity and sustained impact.
Of course, Battle of Midway’s fatal injury wasn’t alone the catalyst–the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Breeders’ Cup winner was one of three fatalities at the track within two days. His death was also the 18th to mar the facility since racing had resumed towards the end of the prior December.
But in racing as in life, it’s not the blue-collar workforce, but the elite few whose lives tend to permeate the headlines. And so it proved with Battle of Midway, that weekend proving a turning point which subsequently saw track closures, political condemnation, a district attorney’s office investigation, sweeping reforms, a Hall of Fame trainer largely barred from competing in the state and ongoing international scrutiny. But how do those who have shouldered the brunt of this turbulence view the landscape 12 months later?
To find out, the TDN canvassed the thoughts of a variety of industry stakeholders in California. Their answers avoid easy pigeon-holing–a narrative of hope tempered with uncertainty. Optimism mixed with concern. Take the broad-sweeping changes that appear to have led to a steep drop in state-wide equine fatalities the past eight months–the other side of that story is a community still struggling to adapt to a drastically altered status-quo.
“The reforms came at us fast and they came hard,” said Jeff Blea, a racetrack practitioner and past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. “It all happened essentially overnight.”
There’s also a rigid belief running through the California industry that events here are a litmus test for what will eventually unfold elsewhere.
“There was a bit of hesitation at first of my peers from other states being a bit dismissive of California,” said California Thoroughbred Trainers president Eoin Harty, who routinely travels to Florida to oversee his string at Tampa Bay Downs.
“But the reality of what we’re doing is sinking in and is eventually going to be the reality of what they’re going to have to face in the future,” he added. “And probably not so distant future.”
“You’re More Aware”
In terms of horse safety and welfare in California, the reforms “are working,” said California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) executive director Rick Baedeker, who will soon vacate the position. “Everybody knew that they would.”
Compared to the same point last year, there have been 11 fewer fatalities at Santa Anita since the start of the current meet. For texture, the seven fatalities so far this year include one freak accident and what appears a sudden cardiac death. Digging down into the numbers, as of Feb. 20, this works out to a fatality rate of 1.78 runners per 1000 starts–a figure still slightly higher than the national average of 1.68 per 1000 starts, according to The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, but significantly down on the rate for the meet last year.
Of course, this winter has been decidedly less inclement than a year ago–a prime ingredient in events during the early portion of 2019. Nevertheless, these numbers fit what has been a broader years-long state-wide trend of reduced fatality figures. What’s more, since the start of July last year, the number of state-wide training fatalities is down 41% over the year prior, while racing fatalities are down 27% (with 10% fewer races), according to Baedeker. This equates to a state-wide fatality rate of 1.47 per 1000 starts, said Baedeker–a number lower than the national average.
According to Sean McCarthy, who recently returned to the training ranks after a brief hiatus as an assistant, reforms like those made to the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories–prohibiting their use within 48 hours of a work or race–and the added pre-race veterinary scrutiny have made the biggest positive impacts. Events over the past year have also had a preoccupying effect on his everyday training decisions, he added.
“You’re more aware,” McCarthy said. “You’re certainly more conscientious of the little things. And when I say little things, I mean little things.”
Nevertheless, the dust appears to be still settling on some of these reforms. Rick Arthur, whose post as California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) equine medical director is currently up for grabs, said that the panel of stewards and veterinarians which reviews entries can be improved, made more efficient.
“I think [trainers] deserve more credit than we’ve given them,” he said.
Several trainers also voiced frustration with the requirement to inform the Santa Anita racing office 48 hours before an intended workout–an impediment, they say, of needed flexibility in their everyday programs, and one that wasn’t last year required at Del Mar.
“Trainers are under an extreme amount of scrutiny and pressure as it is,” said Richard Baltas, who is currently leading the trainer’s standings at the meet. “This is micromanaging.”
But not all agree.
“I understand their frustration,” said Blea. “There’s an art to training, otherwise anybody could do it.”
Nevertheless, he said that the pre-workout scrutiny has been one of the “most impactful changes” instituted over the past year.
“Now you add another set of eyes to the horse,” Blea said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Beacon of Change”
The flip-side of this coin are economic pressures exacerbated by the available products at tracks like Oaklawn Park, which boasts handsome purses driven by casino revenues coupled with what appears looser regulatory scrutiny of the horses training and racing. (Note: An Oaklawn Park spokesperson explained that trainers there work horses at their own discretion, but didn’t provide before deadline a detailed outline of their broader welfare and safety protocols).
According to numbers provided by The Stronach Group (TSG), the horse inventory at Santa Anita is down between 300 and 400 horses from what is typical at this time of year. In terms of ripple effects, through the first 28 days of racing versus a comparable period last year, the track is down 13% in on-track handle, while all sources handle is down 15%, according to TSG. The average field size is 7.3, turf (8.3) proving stronger than dirt (6.6).
Santa Anita isn’t alone in feeling the pinch. Del Mar’s overall handle last summer was down about 15% from the year prior (with 6.6% fewer races), said the track’s CFO Mike Ernst. The average field size was also down from 8.7 in 2018 to 8.0 last year. However, both those indicators improved as the meet went on last summer. Indeed, for the track’s last week, the average field size was 8.75. For Del Mar’s fall meet, the average daily handle was up 10% over the year prior, said Ernst.
There is no linear narrative as to how the economic fallout has played out across the industry, while at the same time, many are quick to argue that certain factors contributing to the problems have long been in effect, like a shrinking foal crop nationwide, for example.
John Harris, one of the state’s most prolific owner-breeders, said that while his business has remained steady, the state’s smaller operators are the ones most likely to have been squeezed over the past 12 months.
“The average breeder has a difficult time of it anyway,” he said.
According to Deedee Anderson, who runs an equine therapy business in SoCal, her list of clients has shrunk in recent months, and she has turned to Uber driving to supplement her income.
Yet, blacksmith Wes Champagne reckons his workload has increased by 25% over the last year–a result, he said, of trainers streamlining operations out of necessity, consolidating their businesses around their most essential employees.
“You’re only as good as your help,” he said.
What’s essential, said trainer Michael McCarthy, is a level playing field for all trainers across all states.
“I know The Stronach Group can’t tell everyone what to do,” he said. “But if they truly want to be a beacon of change, then these policies need to be implemented at all of their racetracks.”
According to Aidan Butler, TSG’s chief strategy officer, regulatory loopholes are among the current impediments towards uniform safety protocols across all TSG tracks.
“The intent is to get this done as quickly as possible, but state by state it’s going to take a little work,” he said.
Nevertheless, uniform “transparency” across all the nation’s tracks would help Santa Anita’s cause, he added.
“That for me would help level the playing field,” he said. “Santa Anita believes in transparency, which sometimes is to our own detriment. Some tracks choose not to report anything, including into the Equine Injury Database. This leads to the false narrative that they are completely safe when in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Butler also said that some of the reforms at Santa Anita, like the 48-hour work notification rule, will be “looked at” for possible tweaks.
“Do I understand it’s a pain in the ass for people? Absolutely,” he said. “But there’s a lot to learn from this information. It’s really valuable.”
Ultimately, “Santa Anita is a big old ship that takes a lot of turning,” Butler said. “A lot of these reforms haven’t necessarily been good for the short-term business, but this is about the long-term responsibility for the sport. What do you want to be? Part of the solution or part of the problem?”
In the background are political headwinds that promise to blow with gusto this presidential election year. In January, state senator Bill Dodd introduced a “spot bill” with the loosely written objective of addressing “horse racing safety.” State senator Adam Gray is co-sponsor.
Earlier this month, state assembly member Ash Kalra introduced separate legislation–one that has the support of PETA–which is much more prescriptive. As currently written, the legislation would require that medications are dispensed at an on-site racetrack repository, among several broad changes.
Most recently, state assembly member Ed Chau introduced a bill which makes what appears vague requirements surrounding the state’s equine postmortem program.
The “ultimate vehicle” for any new state regulations will likely be the Dodd bill, said Greg Avioli, TOC president and CEO, who added that elements of the other two bills could be woven into it during the legislative process.
“More than likely these bills will not have hearings under the calendar, the way it works in Sacramento, until April,” said Avioli. “But I do expect it to move forward, and I think elements of the Kalra bill will overlap with what’s in the Gray-Dodd bill.”
Which begs the question: where does the road lead from here? According to Baedeker, the board under its latest chairman, Greg Ferraro, will work to tighten the medication and safety restrictions further.
“It’s fairly simple when you hear him describe it,” Baedeker said. “We’re going to be hay, oats and water.”
In that respect, some, like Rick Arthur, said they believe that certain out-of-state trainers and owners who have historically advocated for a cleaner sport could do more to support an industry in California that has, in many ways, taken the bull by the horns.
“I’m really rather astounded that the [pro] no-medication horsemen, especially back East, haven’t sent horses out to California,” Arthur said. “You would have thought they would have supported California racing more than they have.”
To bolster recruitment, Del Mar is working with the TOC on several initiatives for this year, like further modifying its well-established Ship & Win program and possible purse increases, said Tom Robbins, the track’s executive vice president for racing.
“We recognize we need to get the horse population back to where we can once again support five days of racing a week,” he said.
On Sunday, Santa Anita announced its latest Ship & Win initiatives.
“Let’s not forget about the economic engine of all of this, which is handicapping,” Butler said, referencing recent changes to the track’s betting products. “I’ve got to start letting all constituents within horse racing see the value of what we do. I’m certainly going to start beating the Santa Anita collective chest.”
Ultimately, those in positions of power will have to think “outside the box” as they continue to grapple with the ongoing headwinds from events last year, said Harty.
“Now is a seminal moment in the history of Santa Anita,” he said. “They’re going to have to reinvent themselves one way or another to entice people back here. That’s the crux of the issue.”