Stronach Op-Ed: Let Us Reopen Without Fans

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Belinda Stronach | Horsephotos

The following op-ed appeared in Friday's print editions of newspapers owned by the Southern California News Group, which includes the Orange County Register, the Pasadena Star-News, and others.

Let horse races resume in L.A. without an audience

By Belinda Stronach

On March 12, a full week before any stay-at-home orders were issued, Santa Anita Park voluntarily closed to the public for the protection of the people and horses who call it home. Since then, we have demonstrated our capacity to operate as a safe, self-contained, lockeddown community working under stringent and ever-evolving measures based on the best scientific guidance from health and governmental authorities to maintain social distancing and limit exposure to COVID-19 while continuing to protect and support our essential backstretch employees. They are the backbone of our industry.

On March 27, government officials affected the well-being of the backstretch employees by suspending live horse racing temporarily by order of the Los Angeles County Health Department. The horse racing community understands and always will strive for compliance with government orders. In this case, Santa Anita Park is asking that this order be reconsidered and the suspension on live racing lifted. We look forward to working together urgently with the health authorities on this outcome.

For clarity, there would be no spectators at the reopened track and the park would continue to adhere to the stringent protocols already in place. Such a decision would recognize precedent set in other counties, including Orange County in Southern California and several in Florida, where live racing without spectators continues during the fight against COVID-19.

The reason is that live racing is more important, with more behind the scenes, than most people realize. Safe, live racing and the income that comes from online wagering, is a vital part of the ecosystem and removing it creates instability for those in our community who can least afford it. The reality is that racing under these conditions presents no higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 for backstretch employees or the community at large.

At Santa Anita Park, we have a self-contained community compromising an ecosystem that includes over 750 individuals employed by owners and trainers and who live in the onsite dormitories, dedicating their lives to caring for the horses we all love. For these people, Santa Anita Park is their home and it is where they are safe.

Our community includes over 1,700 racehorses who also call Santa Anita Park home and who require constant supervision and care — from feeding, to exercise and veterinary care. Racehorses are living, breathing animals who cannot, and will not, survive without daily human contact and attention. Standing in a stall without daily exercise is detrimental to their health, safety and welfare.

Our community also is made up of the owners and trainers who employ the jockeys and backstretch employees and who are responsible for providing the financial resources needed to care for the horses. The majority of the wages paid to those working on the backstretch and the financial resources to care for horses come directly from the earnings that are made when horses race. Those earnings come from the money wagered and so the cycle goes.

By ceasing safe live racing operations, we are jeopardizing the financial resources required for backstretch employees to provide them and the horses they love with the care they both deserve. For our backstretch employees, the racing element of the ecosystem allows Santa Anita Park to provide safe and secure housing, enables the California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation to offer critical health care services at the dedicated, onsite medical clinic equally for those with or without insurance and ensures these employees have access to no-cost critical support services.

It is not just the employees who are endangered, but the horses in whose care they have been entrusted are facing immediate consequences. California Aftercare Retirement Management Account, which rehomes and retrains retired racehorses, is funded through a percentage of money won during each race. As of April 9, CARMA no longer can accept new retirees into their program due to lack of funding, leaving those most in need of their attention in jeopardy.

Though some industries are able to pause operations, or temporarily mothball machinery, this is simply not an option for horse racing. Now, perhaps more than ever in these difficult times, we must be mindful of our responsibility to prioritize the safety and well-being of our noble horses and those who care for them — especially when doing so puts those caregivers at no higher risk of exposure to COVID-19.

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