BORROWING TROUBLE

With the spotlight dimming somewhat on 23 horse fatalities at Santa Anita, media attention now turns to Kentucky as the biggest event in American horse racing approaches. A horse fatality in a race at the current Keeneland meet and two recent stories from the Louisville Courier Journal are extending the negative publicity generated at Santa Anita.

After the horse breakdown at Keeneland, the track’s CEO released a statement that said in part: “…we will review and evaluate all facets of our racing operation to ensure the safest possible environment for the equine and human athletes participating in our racing program.”

The words are well intentioned but do not hold up under factual scrutiny. If Keeneland was sincerely trying to “ensure the safest possible environment for the equine and human athletes” it would not have torn out its synthetic racetrack surface and replaced it with dirt. Keeneland acted knowing that data from the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database clearly demonstrate that equine injuries are much lower on synthetic surfaces and, in fact, show dirt to be the unsafest surface of all for racing. (Santa Anita also replaced a synthetic surface with dirt and horse fatalities predictably soared immediately.)

The first Courier Journal story was titled “Churchill Downs is one of the deadliest racetracks in America” and the second headline was “Horse racing is worse than football for concussions. Why isn’t the US doing more?” So this is the negative backdrop for the upcoming Derby.

The Kentucky Derby typically has a 20-horse field requiring two starting gates. This is a recipe for a barrage of criticism should there be an accident, particularly at the start of the race or on the first turn. Can’t you hear the public outcry and Churchill Downs’ reactive response that it will study the matter of whether the Derby field size should be reduced?

Why not proactively limit the field to 14 horses and one starting gate in the name of safety? Many of the horses in a 20-horse field are pretenders rather than contenders, anyway.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland (and Santa Anita) have made themselves vulnerable to hard-to-counter charges that the safety of jockeys and horses runs a poor second to monetary goals.

For those of us who enjoy horse racing and want to see it have a future in the United States, it is troubling to see leaders in the sport repeatedly engage in actions that invite public condemnation and espouse lofty words so obviously contradicted by hard evidence. Injuries are bound to happen in athletic endeavors, but common-sense initiatives can curb the number.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

SANTA ANITA POWER IN THE KENTUCKY DERBY

Of the 19 colts who won the Kentucky Derby in the 21st century, eight of them were conditioned by trainers based at Santa Anita Park. Included in this group are the 12th and 13th winners of the American Triple Crown, American Pharoah and Justify. That 42% of this century’s Kentucky Derby winners and two Triple Crown champions were domiciled at a single racetrack is remarkable.

Kentucky Derby winners from Santa Anita were: Justify (2018), Nyquist (2016), American Pharoah (2015), California Chrome (2014), I’ll Have Another (2012), Giocamo (2005), War Emblem (2002), and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000). While most of these colts were Kentucky bred, all except War Emblem were developed primarily in Los Angeles. Three of these colts won the Santa Anita Derby.

The California juggernaut looks strong once again for the 2019 Kentucky Derby. In last Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, the Bob Baffert-trained pair of Roadster and Game Winner finished first and second. Meanwhile, Richard Mandella’s Omaha Beach and Baffert’s Improbable are the top contenders in this coming Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.

Thus the California contingent that ships to Churchill Downs for the 2019 Kentucky Derby should be very formidable with, barring injury or illness, the entries of Roadster, Omaha Beach, Game Winner, and Improbable. Roadster is likely to be the favorite to win another Run For the Roses for a Santa Anita trainer.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

AMERICAN HORSE RACING HOLDS ITS COLLECTIVE BREATH OVER THE SANTA ANITA DERBY CARD

The Santa Anita Derby has always been a prominent race for Kentucky Derby contenders and has produced many winners of the Run for the Roses. Yet this coming Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby has the most significance of any Santa Anita Derby in history…for the wrong reason. The television audience for the race will almost surely be larger than normal as people who do not ordinarily follow horse racing choose to watch in the wake of the worldwide publicity over 23 horse deaths at Santa Anita since December 26, 2018.

Ownership and top management at Santa Anita are playing with fire by running at Santa Anita Saturday rather than postponing the race or moving it to the owner’s Golden Gate Fields racetrack in San Francisco. Were the Santa Anita Derby or its undercard to be marred by a horse breakdown, it would have monumentally negative consequences for horse racing not only in California but for the entire United States. Santa Anita ownership in particular and horse racing in general would be pilloried by elected officials, animal-rights groups, the media, and a host of others.

The powers that be at Santa Anita are in an untenable position. Cancelling the Santa Anita Derby card or moving it elsewhere are not good options. Moreover, if a breakdown occurs today or tomorrow at Santa Anita, ownership will be under tremendous pressure to cancel Saturday’s races.

My personal opinion is that the risks and potential adverse consequences of racing at Santa Anita now in the wake of so many horse deaths far outweigh the benefits of going on with business as usual. Horse racing can’t take many more public-relations disasters like the one at Santa Anita. Until the safety issues at Santa Anita are resolved, the best course of action is to lay low.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business