THE SANTA ANITA CONUNDRUM

In the wake of another horse death at Santa Anita Park on January 19, 2020, Los Angeles racing writer John Cherwa wrote: “There is…the possibility that an amendment could be placed on the California ballot that could outlaw horse racing in the state.  However, at this point, there is no indication that the anti-horse racing factions have the signatures to get it on the ballot.”

Sunday’s fatality was not the result of a catastrophic breakdown, but rather of a collision during training hours.  It was the third fatality in three days and the first to occur on the main dirt track in 2020, with the others taking place in turf races.

Since December 2018, Santa Anita has experienced 42 horse fatalities.  And there have been five fatalities from the track’s opening for racing on December 28, 2019 to the present.  This compares to six fatalities at this time a year ago.  Therefore, the pace of 2020 incidents is similar to 2019. Horses are dying and the negative publicity threatens horse racing’s image and viability not only in California but nationwide.

An article on HorseRacingBusiness.com on April 19, 2019, said in part:

“Fact: The unsafest surface at Santa Anita is the downhill turf course (the track has two turf courses) with 2.58 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2018 and over 3.0 per thousand starts in 2017.

Question: In view of 23 recent horse deaths, why is Santa Anita still holding races on its riskiest surface?

Facts: In 2009, races on the main track at Santa Anita were run on a synthetic surface. Ownership tore out the synthetic surface in mid-2010 and replaced it with the dirt surface that has resulted in the majority of horse fatalities in 2019.  On the newly-installed dirt surface, the number of horse fatalities spiked in 2011 to double digits and continued to remain high (compared to the fatalities on the older synthetic surface) every year since, escalating to 23 horse deaths so far in 2019.”

Upper-level executives at The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, have obviously been unable to do much to vastly improve racetrack safety, despite consulting experts.  While the dangerous situation at Santa Anita likely is the confluence of several causes, track safety, on both dirt and turf, is a major contributor.  Data from the Equine Injury Database are quite convincing in this regard. 

The Stronach Group has two realistic but unattractive choices.  First, it can continue with the 2020 meet and gamble that the horse fatalities so far in 2020 are an aberration.  Second, it can halt the meet, install a Tapeta synthetic surface to replace the main dirt track, abandon racing altogether on the downhill turf course and continue to work on the other turf course.

The second option would be costly in terms of financial loss, in the immediate term, but it would almost certainly enhance horse safety and have the secondary effect of staving off a statewide ballot initiative that could very well outlaw horse racing in California, just as dog racing was banned in Florida. Premier races like the Santa Anita Derby could be relocated temporarily to Golden Gate Fields, a Stronach Group track in San Francisco, similar to how the Belmont Stakes and other important races were moved to Aqueduct when Belmont Park was undergoing renovation.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business


WHY MARY HIRSCH BELONGS IN THE HALL OF FAME

A dictionary definition of a Hall of Fame is “an institution honoring the achievements of individuals in a particular activity of field.”  Or, “the class or category of those who have excelled in a particular activity or field.”   

Mary Hirsch (married surname McLennan), pioneering thoroughbred horse trainer, exemplifies the definition of Hall of Famer.  She initially “excelled” by persisting against powerful regulatory authorities in the 1930s, most notably the Jockey Club, to become the first female in the United States to be licensed to train racehorses; and then she excelled again by recording unique milestones with the horses in her care, notwithstanding most owners’ reluctance to place their horses with a woman trainer.

As of early 2020, the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame has inducted only one female trainer into the Hall of Fame, Janet Elliot, who is a superb trainer of steeplechasers.  Thus not a single female trainer of thoroughbreds who race on flat courses is in the Hall.

Mary Hirsch with Max Hirsch

The reasons why only one female trainer is in the Hall of Fame are twofold: the occupation in America has been overwhelmingly male dominated for some 355 years and regulatory bodies for the vast majority of this time barred women from obtaining licenses. Mary Hirsch boldly challenged the male-only policy and broke the proverbial glass ceiling for future generations of women trainers. 

Ms. Hirsch was the daughter of Hall of Fame trainer Max Hirsch and younger sister to Hall of Famer William “Buddy” Hirsch.”  After several years under her father’s tutelage, in 1933 she applied to the Jockey Club for a trainer’s license in New York.  Twenty-year-old Mary’s application was “tabled,” which was a euphemism for “denied.”

The resolute Ms. Hirsch persevered and, in 1934, she was licensed to train in Illinois and Michigan.  The Jockey Club in 1936 reversed its earlier decision and licensed her in New York.  By then, she was licensed to train virtually everywhere in the United States and Europe.

In addition to Mary Hirsch’s breakthrough of being the first licensed female thoroughbred trainer in America, she had other significant accomplishments. She was the first female to saddle a winner at Saratoga.  In 1937, she was the first female to saddle an entry (a gelding named No Sir) in the Kentucky Derby. And a year later, she sent out Thanksgiving to win the Travers. To this day, over 82 years later, she is still the only woman to have trained a winner of the esteemed Travers.

Ms. Hirsch trained for five years, 1935-1939, and her cumulative earnings were $104,285 (about $1.8 million today), representing 84 wins. Her best year was her first, when she won 29 races with earnings of $34,850.  These were exceptional earnings in the midst of the Great Depression and in an era well before large purses. 

Mary Hirsch ended her training career when she married Charles McLennan, a prominent racing official, in 1940. However, she continued to breed racehorses into the 1970s.

Mary Hirsch McLennan’s success, or even triumph, in overcoming institutional and cultural inequities for female trainers in the 1930’s world of American thoroughbred racing, coupled with the number of truly meritorious “firsts” she achieved, paved the way for all the women trainers who came afterwards.  Her induction into the Hall of Fame, as the pathfinder and archetype for female trainers of flat runners in the United States, is long overdue.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business

A REVEALING LOOK AT NO-LASIX RACING AND AMERICAN HORSES

The Pegasus World Cup Invitational and the World Cup Turf are to be run at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida, on January 25, 2020.  Both races will be run medication free, meaning no furosemide (Lasix).  Moreover, the purse for the Pegasus World Cup has been reduced from $9 million in 2019 to $3 million in 2020.  And the purse for the World Cup Turf was cut from $7 million to $1 million.

Besides the purse reductions making the races less attractive to owners, the inaugural Saudi Cup will be held on February 20, 2020, with a total purse of $20 million and $10 million going to the winner.  That makes it the globe’s richest race, surpassing the $12 million Dubai World Cup on March 28, 2020.  The Saudi World Cup will not permit horses to run with race-day medication. 

It will be informative to see how the no-Lasix requirement for The Pegasus World Cup Invitational and the Saudi Cup plays out.  Owners and trainers who send their horses to either race are not deterred by the medication ban, demonstrating that their horses don’t need Lasix.  However, other owners and trainers will be concerned and bypass both races as a result.

What will be informative is how many entries there are for both races and what big-name horses don’t race in either Florida or Saudi Arabia. Short fields for both races, or fields without the best American horses, could be a sign that the races cannibalized one another…or that the no-medication rule scared off some owners and trainers. 

The ideal scenario is full fields for both races, with plenty of American horses entered, demonstrating that Lasix is not really needed for most top-flight racehorses.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business