It’s Not a Santa Anita Problem

October 21, 2019

Unfortunately for the thoroughbred industry, and more unfortunately for Santa Anita and the Stronach Group, the political and media climate in California is such that they have targeted the sport most of us love. Their zealous enthusiasm has tentacled to other mainstream media fueled by sensationalist misinformation. The arguments over what is or isn’t wrong with the Santa Anita racetrack look like today’s democrat against republican debates. They are vile, and of course everybody is right and nobody is wrong. Everyone has their mind made up, and nobody hears any differing views.

I was reluctant to weigh in on this for several months while I sat back and watched the game I love both assaulted and misunderstood. Because our industry, in my opinion, essentially failed to uniformly address the problem, I thought I would attempt to bring some clarity to the situation.

First, ask yourself these questions;

Would Mike Smith towards the end of his career lay it down over and over again on a racing surface that was not safe?

Would Richard Mandella run Omaha Beach who he scratched from the Kentucky Derby over a breathing issue (entrapped epiglottis) on a track he thought even might be unsafe?

Would conservative Shug McGaughey, Will Farish, and Lane’s End bring Code of Honor to Santa Anita to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic if he thought the track was less than safe?

Would east coast based Hall of Famer John Velazquez go to Santa Anita to break the graded stakes win record riding for Bob Baffert on a track that was dangerous or not right?

Would Bill Mott send the highly regarded Elate out to face the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic over a track he did not feel was safe?

Would the Breeders’ Cup, well aware of the spotlight on the sport, run the marquee event over a dangerous track encouraging the best horses in the world to come and compete?

As a gambling man by nature, I’d have to bet on no to all these questions.

The tragic rash of breakdowns that have plagued the last two Santa Anita meets are an industry problem and not a Santa Anita racetrack problem.

Frankly, and contrary to many an opinion out there, and regardless of what does or does not happen in the upcoming Breeders’ Cup, Santa Anita is very likely a very safe racetrack right now. They dug the track up, changed the drainage, and made the surface deep and heavy which should make it safer than it was previously, which is not to say it was unsafe in comparison to the norm of the industry.

Lamentably, breakdowns are inherent to the sport of horse racing. They always have been, and they probably always will be. They happen in the worst ways, and at the worst times, to equine athletes many of us adore. This is a dangerous high stakes ultra competitive sport.

Belmont, Saratoga, and Keeneland are high profile meets which have at times had their fair share of fatalities. None have come under the fire that Santa Anita has but that is primarily because of the climate in California, the fact we make an easy target, the fact we have no uniformed leadership and response, and most importantly we as an industry are not doing all we can to make this dangerous game as safe as it can possibly be. We are perceived in a negative light, somewhat but not entirely unfairly.

I have witnessed several horrendous racing accidents. One of the worst I have ever seen was in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff when the great filly Go For Wand broke down. While we can never stop them all, we can reduce them, makes things safer and better, and prevent some, possibly many more than we do.

One is only as strong as their weakest link. Anything can be taken down if you isolate and go after that weak link. That is precisely what is happening to thoroughbred horse racing. In the wake of the attacks just about the best we came up with is the following;

Well some of our horse are treated well.

Not all our horses break down.

PETA this and PETA that. PETA kills animals, PETA has an agenda. ETC. ETC. ETC.

Many of us love our horses what about us?

Horses love to run.

We are horse racing.

We need our jobs.

In the wake of a public outcry, a public I might add cares nothing about any of us, our jobs, our industry, or the sport itself, that is the best we can come up with. Shoot the messenger, abandon the weak link, ignore the issues. We’re fueling the fire that is burning us.

Santa Anita, like it or not, made a serious effort to address the problem of the breakdowns. They instituted a set of new protocols designed to self police, and create an environment that makes it difficult to race horses that have red flags as to their soundness, injury history, and a propensity to break down. It looks like at this early juncture it is making a bit of a positive difference but it is too soon to be definitive. Don’t be naive, this and in fact nothing will prevent breakdowns, but it is a step in the right direction. These are the types of reforms that are called for today. Whether you agree with them or not, you must remain cognizant perception is crucial. As aforementioned, right now our sport is perceived in a very negative light. We all know the sport is struggling so let’s ask another question. Do we want to fight for our game’s survival from the ropes or the middle of the ring?

There is hope and all is far from lost. We need to lose the every man and entity in the game for themselves mentality, and acknowledge and address the problems as opposed to bashing PETA and inventing catch slogans.

I am horse racing will become I was horse racing if we don’t.

While breakdowns are indeed inherent to the sport, they can and must be reduced and minimized. Nothing less should be acceptable.

The rash of breakdowns has multiple contributing factors. Many of us know what the issues in the industry are. There is no need to laundry list them here. There is no point in arguing them either. The time has come to fix what is broken, and educate people to what isn’t.

If you think all thoroughbreds love to run you have either never been around the racetrack backside, or you are lying to yourself. All thoroughbreds may be bred to run, and many love it but not all. Sore horses who need drugs to mask pain don’t love to run. Horses too old and brittle to compete don’t love to run. We need to race healthy and happy horses, who don’t “need” drugs or have to be forced to run.

They don’t all love to run.

Not many people know this. Some years back I was at Gulfstream in the paddock and saw a horse in a stall cowering. I was not betting the race, a maiden claiming race. I looked in the horse’s face and saw terror. I pulled out my racing form. The horse had run about 15 times. He had never beaten one horse. Not one single horse. Trailed may have been his best comment. I looked at his trainer. His record was not much better. Maybe worse. I could not get the horses eyes out of my head. He ran last. I watched and was glad he made it. I approached the trainer and bought him. He went right to a farm and life of leisure. I slept good.

Horses, unlike humans, can’t choose whether or not they are put in a race. We are in charge of that and we have all chosen to play this game knowing the risks for the horses and also for us. Accordingly, we have an obligation to make things as safe as possible and we are making improvements. We have to do more.

We need to get everyone participating and on the same page. Our defense should not be to attack and bash the PETA’s and activists. Our defense should be to give them absolutely nothing credible to say. Nothing. Zero and zero tolerance toward anything less than that.

We can fight perception, educate outsiders, maybe even bring one or two in, but we have to be united and all for one. This is why I have lobbied for years now that we need a central governing body, and even a commissioner if you will. I realize we can’t even agree to stagger post times of our stakes at many tracks so this is a reach to achieve but we need it now more than ever. We need uniformity in rules and enforcement. We need zero tolerance on serious violations. We need cooperation between racetracks and all stakeholders. We need a lot, and we can’t get any of it in our present environment.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

View Jon Stettin

"Nice work and well said Jon."

Ryan McCarthy @RMcCarthy1 View testimonials