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.
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:
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
It’s mid-February, the weekend of Sam and Bob, the weekend Derby preps get serious. Forgive the plug, but if you’re looking for analysis of Kentucky Derby and Oaks preps this spring, consider signing up for the weekly Hello Race Fans! Derby Prep Alert, which this week covers the Sam F. Davis at Tampa, the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, and El Camino Real at Golden Gate. Subscribers last week were tipped off to Zazu’s upset potential in the Las Virgenes.
I’ve been a little preoccupied this week (to readers who are not Suffolk Downs fans, my thanks for sticking around through what’s been a series of minutiae-filled posts about a track on the ropes), and haven’t done much more than glance at the entries for the preps — enough to notice that Jaycito isn’t in the Lewis, a race in which Tapizar seems a solid favorite — and to skim Jeremy Plonk’s exhaustive Countdown to the Crown column, which mentions a few allowance races that bear watching for Derby prospects. [Jaycito will start in the San Vicente on February 20. "He’s ready to go," said trainer Bob Baffert.]
Suffolk certainly isn’t the only racetrack struggling, and that it’s my local track isn’t all that makes the dispute with the New England horsemen over the 2011 meet purses, days, and simulcasting split so fascinating to me — it’s also that what’s happening here is of a piece with what’s happening in California, where annual handle is down and horseplayers are revolting. It’s all part of the Great American Racing Contraction, a reapportionment of power and money that isn’t going to leave a track, horseman, or horseplayer untouched.
Trainer John Sadler is hardly unknown. Steadily climbing the rankings over the past decade, he’s been among the top 10 conditioners nationally by earnings since 2008, and six weeks into this year, he’s number four, behind perennial leaders Asmussen, Baffert, and Pletcher. On opening day at Santa Anita, he won three graded stakes. This past weekend, he won three of the four graded stakes run at the track — the Strub Stakes with Twirling Candy (“possesses an undeniable brilliance,” gushed Mike Watchmaker), the Las Virgenes with Zazu (Green but Game’s expert pick and newest crush), and the San Antonio Handicap with Gladding. With 4-year-old stakes winners Switch and Sidney’s Candy also in his barn, the Santa Anita press office calculates that he has “serious contenders … in no less than six of racing’s divisions.” Not bad. While Sadler isn’t well stocked in racing’s glamour division — his most promising 3-year-old male so far this winter is Runflatout, a debut maiden winner — with three of the best older horses in training, he seems poised to have the kind of breakout year that leads to an Eclipse Award.
“Cal Nation came out of his race well,” said Pletcher of the 3-year-old Distorted Humor colt who was impressive in breaking his maiden at first asking in Saturday’s eighth race [at Gulfstream]. “It’s a little late [for him to get onto the Kentucky Derby trail]. We’d have to make up a lot of time. I think we’ll just take the conservative route with him.”
Brad Free was out with an interesting post on Santa Anita’s new dirt surface over the weekend: “No one wants to knock the surface. Not publicly, at least. But behind the scenes, many are frustrated.” For whatever reason, the track composition is not as as expected; more sand is to be added. Via Derby List comes this report of bruising clods being thrown up by the dirt: “I had the misfortune of being behind one horse while working a set 2 mornings ago …
2/9/11 Addendum: Sadler tells Jay Privman that Runflatout is possible for the San Vicente Stakes on February 20. “I want to give him a chance to get to the Kentucky Derby, but I want to be smart, too, about how we go at it.”
Penn National chairman Peter Carlino and CHRB vice chairman David Israel don’t agree on the value of supplementing purses, but they do on racing’s demographic. “There aren’t sufficient numbers of racing customers in the world anymore because they died,” Carlino said today in an investors and analysts conference call. “The average age of our ontrack customer is deceased, and the average age of our satellite customer is decomposed,” Israel told attendees of the UA-RTIP symposium last December. At least Israel went on to talk about reaching out to potential un-dead fans.
HANA president Jeff Platt, a racing customer very much alive, talks to Jack Shinar about the month-long players’ boycott of California. “Right now I believe there are a number of people in track management that are considering going to the CHRB to ask that it rescind the takeout increase,” said Platt, who took part in recent meetings with track executives. “The TOC is being very tight-lipped about this. This was a horsemen’s idea, after all, not a track idea.” No comment on the boycott from the TOC to Shinar. (Are they just considering, or have they already had discussions about rescinding the takeout increase? That’s an interesting question, considering the depressed handle and what must be growing concern re: the purse account.)
The equine California makes his debut
in race eight at Gulfstream on Saturday in the first race at Gulfstream on Sunday. Trainer Todd Pletcher scratched the Madcap Escapade colt from a race that included barnmate Cal Nation, a half-brother to graded stakes winner Bluegrass Cat, and re-entered him in a race that came up a little less contentious. John Velazquez is named to ride on Sunday, instead of Ramon Dominguez, who had the mount in Saturday’s race.
2/7/11 Addendum: California finished third in his first start.