Results are in from the 2019 Del Mar meet and they are not good. Betting handle fell by 10.57% from 2018 in spite of a booming economy propelled by consumer spending. 

Mitigating factors certainly account for some of the decline. The year-over-year number of races decreased by 7%. In addition, the number of starters dropped by 16% in 2019 when compared to 2018, so the races were not as attractive to bettors. Fewer starters may have been due mostly to the rigid health and condition requirements Del Mar wisely put into place to clear horses to run, which led to zero racing fatalities from breakdowns during the meet.

The main reason for Del Mar’s subpar handle figures is almost certainly the 30 horse deaths at Santa Anita in 2019, which soured many people on California horse racing. The publicity from the carnage took a predictable and understandable toll on business.

On September 11, 2019, a New York Times article by Joe Drape revealed another scandal involving Santa Anita: Triple Crown winner Justify had tested positive for scopolamine after the 2018 Santa Anita Derby. Though the positive was likely the result of contaminated feed or straw bedding, the incident looks to have been covered up by the California Horse Racing Board, a regulatory body with some voting members having an obvious conflict of interest.

American horse racing’s image has suffered from the news emanating from California and storm clouds are on the horizon. California Governor Gavin Newsome warned this week:

“What happened…[at Santa Anita] was unacceptable, and all of the excuses be damned. We own that going into the next season, and we’re going to have to do something about it…I’ll tell you, talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform. That’s horse racing. Incredible abuses to these precious animals and the willingness to just to spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace.”

One would think, given the precarious situation, that industry insiders would be especially careful not to do further damage. To the contrary, in recent instances involving the Breeders Cup and the HBPA, the opposite is true.

An objective observer would ask why American horse racing’s 2019 year- end championships, to be showcased internationally on television, will be held at the very racetrack, Santa Anita, that has proved to be so hazardous and has brought so much negative attention to the sport? (Would NASCAR or Indy Racing choose to race at a track that is unsafe for drivers?) Conspiracy theorists could provide an explanation, true or not, that would resonate with a lot of people.

On September 13, 2019, the Stronach Group, owner of several leading racetracks including Santa Anita, announced that Breeders’ Cup president and CEO Craig Fravel would resign from the Breeders’ Cup to accept the position of CEO, Racing Operations for the Stronach Group racetracks. While Mr. Fravel has a reputation for integrity and accomplishment, his hiring by the owner of troubled Santa Anita looks suspicious.

Why so? In June 2019, the Fravel-led Breeders Cup opted to keep the 2019 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita notwithstanding that 30 horse fatalities recently occurred there. Even though the Breeders’ Cup board voted to stay put at Santa Anita, Mr. Fravel presumably made a recommendation to do so. Moreover, a Stronach Group executive is an elected member of the Breeders’ Cup board of directors.

Following the Breeders’ Cup announcement that the 2019 event would remain at Santa Anita, Keeneland and Del Mar (Mr. Fravel’s onetime employer) promptly put out media releases that they endorsed the decision. These tracks happen to be the sites of the 2020 and 2021 Breeders’ Cup, which adds to the impression of a cabal at work.

On September 20, the National HBPA released a letter signed by 600 trainers and owners in support of race-day furosemide (Lasix). Even though Hall of Fame trainers named Baffert, Lukas, Mandella, McGaughey, and Mott did not sign the letter, the list still has well-known names. The HBPA’s timing could not have been any worse in extolling the benefits of a performance-enhancing drug in the midst of the Justify scopolamine controversy and the stern aside by California Governor Newsome: “…talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform.”

The American racing industry, with exceptions, most notably the Jockey Club, has a tin ear and a “circle the wagons” mentality, and these failings are imperiling its future. Actions have consequences and optics count.

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