JC / Railbird

California

Whipping the Issue

Pull the Pocket on Victor Espinoza’s heavy hand in the Kentucky Derby:

I don’t know why we make things so difficult in horse racing: 32 is excessive by any measure. That’s against a rule, thus you penalize him. Next year, if you don’t want to see the same thing on national TV, you pass, or alter the rule beforehand and let the jocks know in the room that excessive use will result in a 14 day suspension. That would not allow the jock to ride in the Preakness. The jocks — who are professionals — will fall in line and your problem will be solved.

Except the people charged with keeping the rules don’t seem to see an issue with what happened. Although there are plans to review Espinoza’s whip use on American Pharoah, “clearly this is a discretionary issue,” chief steward Barbara Borden told Marty McGee (DRF paywalled, sorry). If there’s a point to press, it’s in the rule that a horse be given time to respond after being struck. As I said elsewhere, it didn’t look as though Pharoah got that.

Trainer Bob Baffert also downplayed how Espinoza used his riding crop on American Pharaoh, saying during the NTRA teleconference on Tuesday:

“I never noticed it during the race, and then … I read something yesterday. I went back and looked at it. The horse — first of all, the whips they use now, they’re so light … and he was just keeping him busy, because … the horse was not responding when he turned for home … he just was keeping him busy, and he was flogging him and hitting him, but he hits him on the saddle towel. He doesn’t really hit that hard, so he was just keeping him busy.”

It’s “flogging,” but it’s not a problem. And for the most part, watching most races, I agree, especially about allowing riders discretion — jockeys say the crop is required for safety and control, and because they’re the people putting their mobility and lives on the line in each race, theirs is the perspective that most matters. The crop also has a place in encouraging a horse. But neither control nor encouragement get in the way of articulating and enforcing limits.

Related to whipping not being a problem (in a slightly different way), here’s a quick post Dana Byerly put together last fall when Santa Anita was considering a change to its whip use rule (the new rule, which restricts riders to three consecutive strikes before they must pause, passed statewide in November).

6:45 PM Addendum: Santa Anita stewards have fined Espinoza $300 for a whip violation. He broke the skin of Stellar Wind in the Santa Anita Oaks on April 4, as reported by the state veterinarian in the test barn post-race. Trainer John Sadler tells the Blood-Horse, though, “This is the first I’ve heard of it and I don’t remember noticing any marks on the horse then.”

That’s a Wrap

Woodmans Luck runs down Depreciable in the stretch to win the last ever race at Hollywood (PDF). Farewell, beautiful track, and thanks for all the memories.

Watch the replay and the final winner’s circle presentation:

And raise a glass for one last toast:

To winning wagers on Willie Shoemaker, getting carried away in the seats where Cary Grant was granted access, and to those two flamingos left floating around on the infield lake that don’t want to leave.

More from Hollywood’s closing day: About the flamingos who evaded capture, “We have to give them a little bit of time to forget about it” … in the paddock for the penultimate raceriding Swapsa full lot … crowd jams grandstand and Mel Brooks grouses, “There are 100,000 people that have never been here, and they’re using up the tellers” … and then they pried bits and pieces of memorabilia from every corner, reports Ed Zieralski: “In the end, fans took everything they could. One guy was hauled out by the Inglewood police for looting” … get your own piece of Hollywood when the track holds an auction on January 24-25saying goodbye and savoring memoriespaying tribute … Vladimir Cerin, the last trainer to stand in the winner’s circle, would have shared that distinction: “I almost would have taken a four-horse dead heat there and let everyone have a piece of the last race.”

Shocking

Ray Paulick continues digging into the sudden deaths of 36 California racehorses from July 1, 2011 to March 31, 2013, and finds that:

… one trainer with 2.5% of the horses and 1.5% of the total starts has had 19.4% of the sudden deaths over a 21-month period.

That trainer has hired a public relations and crisis management firm to handle the attention his startling numbers have aroused. They’ve been tweeting.

6/21/13 Addendum: The CHRB has issued a statement on the ongoing investigation into the sudden deaths (PDF). “The pathology and toxicology work has been completed … with no indication of foul play. This aspect of the review is believed to have been as thorough of an examination as has ever been done anywhere in the world with such cases.”

Bigger than California

John Pricci gets to the point:

It may be impolitic to judge without having all the facts but it would be irresponsible and inappropriate not to speculate based on circumstances. From where we sit, these cardiac related deaths are a possible indictment of not only individuals but the whole way the game is administered. It’s a problem that stretches far beyond the California state line.

More on the sudden death issue collected here.

Hollywood Beckons

Santa Anita meet’s closed on Sunday and its numbers don’t tell a happy story*. David Milch’s racetrack drama probably won’t either, but the “Luck” preview released by HBO on Monday generates a good kind of excitement:

As a setting for storytelling, you couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Milch.

The horses used in filming “Luck” were some of the first to test the restored dirt track at Santa Anita last December, the same surface on which 19 horses were fatally injured during the meet. With an additional fatality on the training track and six on the turf course, the total number of fatalities came to 26 (as estimated here). Santa Anita is funding a safety study: “We hope that data will be important to us and something that we can apply.” That is to be hoped! It was a real pleasure to watch Santa Anita for three years and rarely worry about seeing a horse go down. After this meet, I can’t say that — and I’m not alone.

How’s this for ugly? Fatality numbers were almost all that was up at Santa Anita. While attendance held steady, handle declined. The track announced a 9% decrease in average daily handle, but the raw CHRIMS data, available through CalRacing, showed a 20.7% decline in gross handle over the previous year, from $589 million (PDF) to $467 million (PDF). Adjusting for eight fewer days, and a decline of 9.7% in the number of races carded, the Blood-Horse found average daily handle was down 11.6%. Pull the Pocket has an interesting theory on why Blood-Horse, which originally reported the 9% decline straight, revisited the handle numbers so thoroughly and quickly.

As long as I’m linking bad news, here’s more: The national HBPA officially opposes the proposed RCI ban on raceday medications. Apparently, a five-year phase-out isn’t long enough. “Blah. Blah. Blah,” says Ray Paulick. Exactly.

*Not a happy story, unless you’re a horseman or owner, in which case, hooray! Total purses were up 5.1% for the Santa Anita meet.

You Say Safe, I Say Deadly

Bob Baffert on the verge of his ninth Santa Anita training title:

“Getting back to the dirt was a big plus, and I have a pretty strong barn now which we were able to build up again. I’ve got no complaints, and it’s been a very safe meet.”

For Baffert’s barn, perhaps, aside from Always a Princess’ career-ending injury in the Santa Margarita. But it’s hardly been a safe meet for the overall horse population; on-track injury and fatality rates at Santa Anita have returned to the ugly level that helped spur the installation of synthetics in California.

California Complication

Oh, California. In an industry roiling coast to coast, the turmoil out west is something else. Handle is down more than $77 million at Santa Anita. Too few horses cause canceled days. Horseplayers are in revolt. “In my opinion,” bettor Andy Asaro told Art Wilson, “the CHRB leadership has failed California racing.” The matter of who’s leading is about to get more complicated: A new group called the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association issued a press release last night challenging the standing of the Thoroughbred Owners of California as the official group representing owners’ interests in the state.

The Toll

Somewhat overshadowed by the Big ‘Cap controversy is that there were two fatalities at Santa Anita on Saturday, one on the new dirt, one on turf:

According to Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, Saturday’s double fatality brought the thoroughbred death totals since the Dec. 26 start of the Santa Anita meeting to 16 — six in racing and six in training on the new dirt track and four on the grass course. Last year, for the entire meeting, and on the synthetic track that brought much anger and whining from horsemen and resulted in owner Frank Stronach replacing it with traditional dirt, there were a total of 17 deaths — six on the main track, five on the training track and six on the grass.

Live racing ends on April 17. With fewer total races carded this year over last, Santa Anita is on track for approximately 26 total fatalities during the meet.

3/9/11 Addendum: More context from Jeff Scott regarding the fatalities on the Santa Anita dirt: “The death of Redemsky brings the total to at least 12, a number that rivals the worst years on the old Santa Anita dirt before the first synthetic surface was installed in 2007.” Where’s the press on this reversion?

No (Derby) Future

Dick Powell evaluates Derby Future Wager prospects:

I am throwing out any horse that races or trains at Santa Anita. The newly installed dirt surface there is still too hard and already you are seeing problems. By the time the Santa Anita Derby (G1) is run on April 9, the horses stabled there are going to be pretty banged up by the constant pounding.

Hate to think what that might mean for my #2, Jaycito.

Gate Break Checks

Santa Anita stewards have tightened their policy on vet checks for gate breaks, following a January incident in which a horse pushed through its stall doors before the start and then didn’t run its best race after losing two teeth:

While stopping short of automatically scratching horses that break through the gate, we decided that the veterinarian will look at every horse that opens the gate in any way. This will not only provide safety for horses and riders but will also protect the wagering public by providing some opportunity to change wagers if necessary.

Via the February 5, 2011 stewards’ minutes.

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