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TrackNotes: Diagnosing Death

It was the second time I ever went to a race track, the second time I went to Arlington Park.

The pastoral appeal was firmly ingrained by then. The hazy toothpicks of Chicago's tallest towers sticking up on the horizon, far enough away for race day in the country, suggesting the best of two worlds. The peace of the ovals and fences, including the magnificent turf course, belied the hard, hard work toiled upon them.

In the second race, I was on the rail, a bit up, no closer to the wire than the sixteenth pole. They had entered and straightened into the stretch, and then, right in front of me . . . violence.

I gasped, my breath knocked out. Quickly processing, I realized, thankfully, that the rider had been thrown free. The ambulance that follows the jockeys pulled up, and deftly parked itself so as to shield the fallen horse from fans. I swear, I thought about the children.

It was so very quiet. As soon as it could, the horse ambulance, a large horse trailer painted white with red crosses on it, came out, moving with urgency, but not so fast as to create anxiety or drama or to have something bad happen. They deployed a large frame with heavy blue plastic, so that nobody could see anything, although the reporter in me wanted to witness it.

The rest of the day was quieter, all through the track. Track announcer John G. Dooley called the next race as reverently as he could. That was before Arlington blasted Noriega-loud torture over the PA in every available moment.

I thought back to that day over the last several weeks, as horses, a track and the game itself were dragged down by the evil, ever-present horse racing serpents. And now they must be dealt with.

Last Saturday, on Santa Anita Handicap Day, Big 'Cap day, San Felipe Day, Frank Kilroe Mile Day, Santa Anita, Arcadia, Calif., rightfully and ethically so, was closed for racing.

Since December 26, the opening of the winter meet, 21 horses have suffered catastrophic, fatal injuries. Seven died in races on the dirt main track, nine on the dirt while training (perhaps one of those a heart attack), and five while racing on a notably firm turf course turned soft on many days.

Only humans, for profit, pay attention to the social standing of Thoroughbreds. The most prominent victim was four-year-old Battle of Midway, a hard tryer who gave fans all they wanted and was one to keep an eye on. A tough second in the 2017 Santa Anita Derby and an honorable third in the Kentucky Derby, he shocked the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile that year, and won his final race this February 2nd, the San Pasquale. Seven days later, he broke a rear leg in training.

Of note, at least to me, was the death of Eskenforadrink, who broke a front leg in a $16,000 claiming race March 2nd. He was the son of Eskendereya (Giant's Causeway/Aldeberan[Seattle Slew]). I loved that runner. He crushed the Fountain of Youth and then the Wood Memorial on his way to odds-on favorite in the 2010 Kentucky Derby. Days before the Derby, in what I still believe was a result of today's breeding, he injured a leg and never ran again. He is still at stud. More on that later.

The last in the spate of fatalities was Ron McAnally's Let's Light The Way, a four-year-old filly who was breezing a workout March 5th, after the track was closed to training for two days in late February for track evaluation by University of Kentucky racing surface consultant Mick Peterson.

There are a million questions, but if Santa Anita even does find the problem, I firmly believe we will never be told the truth, or told anything. People, especially the fans, will have to search very deeply between the lines of conversation to find a word, somewhere, that might tip off what really happened. Then there's the outright spin.

The reasons for this are multiple and complex. Tons of rain through the winter are an important factor. The Santa Anita racing surfaces are normally very hard. It's one way they develop "California speed." The turf course is usually not much softer than a quality golf green. With the rain, several races were taken off the turf in this meet. Santa Anita's turf doesn't absorb water anything like Arlington's lush, farm field-type course.

One theory that has continued to pop up was that sealing the track made it even harder, or at least greatly reduced any cushion on top of the hard substrate. Sealing is when a track is tightly compacted to allow heavy rains to roll right off of it.

On another level, the absence of former track superintendent Dennis Moore, who either voluntarily retired at the end of 2018, or was asked to leave, has also been a topic of conversation.

In a videocast worth watching, Scott Jagow and Ray Paulick of The Paulick Report touch upon many issues and include a telling interview with veteran trainer John Sadler.

We could see the thoughts orbiting in Sadler's brain. "The hardest part has been, um, ya know, seeing what's, ya know, some of the errors on management's side. Hopefully they can get some more information out there, clarity of what's going on. There was an error with Dennis Moore, he never should have left; he's back, so I'm grateful." So track management isn't even telling the horsemen, including a pillar like Sadler, what's going on.

Along with Peterson, Santa Anita brought back Moore to evaluate the problem, doing ground radar testing and, no doubt, identifying just what's in the track material now. Moore was famous for installing El Segundo Sand in 2014, replacing an "artificial" sand that itself replaced the second of two artificial surfaces, both of which caused Santa Anita major problems.

In the corporate sense, Santa Anita has put on a performance that would bring tears of joy to a damage control specialist.

The cover-his-ass defensive spin of COO Tim Ritvo of The Stronach Group, Santa Anita's parent, oozes. About Moore, Ritvo bleated: "I want to tell you, me and Dennis had a love affair. The one thing I never cut or never looked at was the race track. Dennis was in charge. He called all the shots. I reported to him actually when trainers said it was too hard or it was too slow and I gave him the information. That's it. A lot of them were afraid to go to him because he was such a powerful force. We have a great relationship. He was getting to an age (69) where he didn't want to work 365 days a year, and I respected that . . . we had no issues with money, we had no issues with anything. None. Zero. It's the truth."

In just one answer, Ritvo blames the track on Moore, calls Moore an old-man jerk who's hard to work with, and brings up money when he probably tried to cut the salary of Moore, who left Santa Anita voluntarily according to all race press media I've seen, which doesn't make it true. Don't you love it when a guy like Ritvo emphatically insists he's telling the truth?

Ritvo also disagrees with another theory, this time from former Santa Anita and Hollywood and current Los Alamitos racing executive Jack Liebau. The pure amount of horse activity at the facility is quite heavy. Santa Anita races seven or eight months a year, far more than when Hollywood Park existed. It's stressful for a track, with close to 2,000 horses on the premises all trying to use the track for training in heavy traffic, Liebau said.

Right out of the White House instruction manual, Ritvo deflects, saying, "No, I don't think so. My friends at Del Mar have been real good, and wasn't there an issue at Del Mar?" Yes there was, 17 deaths during the 2016 summer meet.

Ritvo's additional culpability was in the decision to not shut down the track sooner. When do you do that? The horses were dying at a steady rate, from the beginning of the meet. Do you stop it at the end of January? February 10, the day after Battle Of Midway but before three more? It came after March 5th, the day Let's Light the Way died.

The meet's opening day brought in record wagering handle. The track was doing well, with a probable small dip in handle during the rains. I firmly believe that one of the biggest reasons the track closed when it did, besides the horses or anything else, was because of the coming television exposure scheduled for March 9th, Big 'Cap Day. All eyes on racing would have swung west for one of Santa Anita's most important cards.

Always consistent, Ritvo also tried to spin the date the track might reopen for racing, deflecting that maybe some "members of his team" were throwing around dates. "There's no exact date, everybody speculates and throws stuff around, and there's a good chance it could be before (March 28th). Hopefully it is, if everything's good." this past weekend, the Santa Anita web site announced racing would resume March 28. The Racing Form now says March 22nd for the resumption of racing, but the website is touting April 4th. The track is open now for light workouts and will resume heavier training this week. For TrackNotes, I'll just take it a week at a time.

* * * * *

As usual, the racing "press" went into see/hear/speak no evil, just like the industry did. Same thing?

The California state horsemen's group Cal Racing and Santa Anita tag-teamed early on to offer this pap through an aggressive modal pop-up on the Santa Anita web site. They deployed the HTML squad to develop this page that displays today.

With a link named "preventing-fatalities-high-priority-in-todays-racing-industry," perfect for the old search optimization switcheroo, Matt Hegarty takes the milquetoast stance in the Daily Racing Form that these things happen and all hands are on deck.

Criticizing people for "scapegoating" the racing surface, Hegarty says, "Horses will die and when those deaths occur in close proximity to each other, commentators far-and-wide will believe that there must be common factors, rather than data just clustering together."

Which commentators? Local TV anchors who don't see anything in horse racing? Me?

Then he does place blame on the surface because California is a leader "as far as monitoring the horse population for risk factors." Huh?

Air freshener distracts from the stench, doesn't eliminate it.

I got your data cluster right here:

* Breeding. When horses run five times and you never see them again, the first thing I think is "leg problems," or potential for problems. Ghostzapper had leg problems, Big Brown had horrible feet. What happened to Eskendereya? What about Justify, 2018's TRIPLE CROWN winner? 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, a son of Uncle Mo, who had liver disease, also appeared to have questionable legs. After the Derby, he never ran to what we expected. Maybe it was the puffy ankles that knocked him out of the game for good just before the Breeders' Cup.

Simply speaking, all American and English Thoroughbreds are descended from three sires and 21 mares, in the 1600s, that directly account for 80 percent of genetic makeup today. The gene pool has always been restricted. Depending on motivation, there is some debate. Some experts contend that inbreeding has accelerated in the past 15 to 20 years. Hmm, does that account for my perception that horses are running less and less these days?

I am no breeding expert, but it stands to reason that undesirable genetics - anything from organ problems to questionable bone structure or composition - have to be passed down through such a limited population.

* Drugs. Longtime and probably permanently-suspended trainer Richard Dutrow took almost diabolical pride in the telling of administering steroids to Big Brown. Dutrow was considered a CVS in the barns. The rumors are strong that Secretariat was also steroidal. I don't doubt it.

Keeping with the all-in reality of the uniquely American racing drug culture, Lasix, a diuretic that helps keep a horse from bleeding in the lungs during a race, is automatic for nearly every horse in every race. Pain blockers and, in some jurisdictions still, steroids, are legally administered in training periods between races. Hmmm, is that why horses run once a month at the most, and sometimes train into a race seven or eight weeks out?

Get rid of the drugs. It will take years, but start with 2020 foals. Create a unique division for drug-free horses, temporarily, if you have to.

* Leadership. This is a pretty flowery mission statement, but for chrissakes, a national organization, or commissioner, with complete fealty from all parties, has long been a need. How long? Howzabout nearly 50 years, or since the advent of race simulcasting and off-track betting?

The electronic signal and, now, global betting, kind of make oversight important. You'd think. Unlike baseball and football, where league differences have been obliterated, racing could keep its regional rivalries based on the idiosyncrasies of breeding and the tracks themselves.

Medication rules are different in every state. Don't get me started on the lack of management consistency in running the races themselves. That's another column.

* Respect the fans. Either they think we're worthless betting bums and will always come back for the fix, or that we "understand" that horses do go down and learn to accept it.

No. Horseplayers, and people who follow the game but just watch, and there are some, are as hurt by this as much as anybody. We're hurt by the death, but we're equally infuriated with the performance of the people who run the sport. The Stronach Group, Santa Anita itself, the California Horse Racing Board. Timed right before a national television weekend.

Their first inclinations were to close the track too late, declare themselves heroes, and firehose the world with bullshit. I can't worry about your marketing problems, but if I ask a newbie if he wants to go to the track, am I going to hear, "Where the horses die? I don't wanna to see that."

It is true that major tracks go through spikes in horse deaths. The bull rings of racing are another story. It happened in the 2000s when California mandated artificial surfaces at all tracks. It has happened after they got rid of those surfaces. It happened at Arlington in 2007, when they installed the artificial they still use. Aqueduct had a problem.

If, in track maintenance alone, consistent national standards, taking into account variations in local conditions, can be implemented, just do it!

It used to be: This is AMERICA!

Now it's: Yeah, but this is america.

-

Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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