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In this horse racing thing, we've always known it's a double life.
You either suppress the reality of the game and go along merrily, enjoying all the horses of their different colors. Or you catch the Emerald City parade and then look behind the wizards' curtains and see and understand the chicanery, hypocrisy and outright deceit. Either way, it is very stressful, I will attest.
We have a very deep, serious dilemma here at TrackNotes. How on earth do we square the heart-raising jubilation and tears of joy for Secretariat's final romp against the heart-stabbing pain, disgust and tears of the other kind for what man is doing to these nonpareil creatures of this earth?
Because it was in the New York Times, this story has been widely seen, if not generally discussed. It hints of the why and how so many racehorses are dying in an expendability crafted and rationalized by men and women who profit.
We're waiting for an epiphany around here, of one kind or another. In the search, we've found an iceberg that would sink a fleet of Titanics.
Since this story started building in February, it has been a daily succession of events on a multitude of political, governmental, corporate and citizen levels. It is so much more than one meet at one track, and that is where the true despair lies. Yet, coverage of the full scope and nature of American racing remains scant, albeit growing.
The pique was stirred by the sad events, since Christmastime, at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, Calif. Bowing to nothing, The Stronach Group sputtered and closed the main track - on scheduled dark days - for track inspection in late February. One hundred percent safe was the verdict. After the toll soon reached 21 upon racing resumption, the track was closed for all purposes "indefinitely" in early March for investigation. On March 30, the third day back racing, Arms Runner "took a bad step" and was fatally injured in a turf race. By the time the meet ended June 23rd, 30 horses had died.
In March, in a line of thinking promoted to this day, Santa Anita officials said they believed a highly unusual rainy winter in Southern California was the main cause. The theory is that because the track had to be sealed - rolled and compacted to allow the track to shed water off the surface - so many times, the foundation of the track became even harder. Harder than during the bake of famous California droughts? Eleven of the deaths occurred during training, and I counted seven horses that died either training or racing on the turf. Yet, they kept running the races.
As the Triple Crown unfolded back east of the Mississippi, The Stronach Group, Belinda Stronach in charge, refused the recommendation of the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) to close the track after Formal Dude went down Saturday, June 8. While the breakdown cannot be directly attributed, jockey Tiago Pereira apparently whipped the horse four times in what would be a violation of California's whip policy. Just hours after that defiance to shutting down, Truffalino died of an apparent heart attack on June 9.
CHRB said it was told by Santa Anita that "after consultation with certain other industry stakeholders, (Santa Anita) believes that for a variety of reasons, the future of California racing is best served by continuing to race." Code for 'go screw yourselves,' that also stands for the money that might be lost by a lot of people in all-sources betting, simulcast and account wagering, including Santa Anita and the sale of its signal.
As for the future of racing best served by continuing to race, CHRB in early June, less than a month ago, did not have the power to close a race track - imagine that! Just shy here of July 4th, all tracks in California have lost a good measure of their independence and Santa Anita is in serious danger of having its own arrogance shoved down its throat riding a roman candle.
Californians do not like what they don't like, and after hoping the Stronachs would do the right thing and didn't, Gov. Gavin Newsom Bronx Tale'd them and signed legislation Wednesday allowing CHRB to close a track on short notice if it deemed it necessary. Now the Stronachs can't defy. The Los Angeles County district attorney has also joined the hayride.
Back To The Track
It's time right here to go back and take a look at Santa Anita track maintenance and those inspections.
Dennis Moore, 69, was the longtime track supervisor at Santa Anita until late 2018. In ealry March, he and University of Kentucky track specialist Mick Peterson were called in to find out what was wrong. Like dandelion fuzz in the wind, I was hearing grumbling then about Moore being gone from Santa Anita and that the separation wasn't all that amicable. He is now working for Del Mar and nearby Los Alamitos.
With "ground radar" the tossed-around buzzword, Santa Anita declared the substrate normal and the track surface safe.
In giving his imprimatur, Moore enters the world of soil dynamics.
"I think the most important thing with this track right now is that we closely monitor compaction levels," said Moore. "With all the rain, and this is the case in any wet winter, the 'fines,' silt and sand, can change very quickly and that affects the clays as well.
Compaction, as well as dilution, of silt and sand, are all factors in the overall composition of the soil."
Moore then quickly pointed out that the bad weather had broken, giving them back their SoCal climate. The Times' Joe Drape repeated the common knowledge that Moore treated the track like his baby, and was not averse to canceling race days in bad conditions.
My take is that, yes, many more racing days should probably have been canceled than were, with the beating the track was taking. I couldn't find out the number of rainouts this meet. Even if The Stronach Group cared, with Moore gone they probably had nobody who knew what was really happening to the track. But blame the track anyway.
Moore and his crew did get the track itself back in shape, scraping it to refurbish the base and reconditioning the surface. But after March, the horses kept dying. Horses kept dying.
Breeders' Cup Crap
In a current note, the industry was all neatly lined up in praising the Breeders' Cup announcement Thursday to keep this year's two-day bash at Santa Anita as planned.
Remember this: Breeders' Cup horses aren't old, tired, sore or average, like so many of the runners who break down. I want to see what the drug protocols will be. They'll have months to get the track in its best shape. Where else are they going to take it? Churchill Downs, last year's site, or Belmont, which the Breeders' Cup doesn't want and weather would be a gamble. Arlington Park? Scene of the infamous Breeders' Cup betting scandal and still possessing an artificial surface?
Super trainer Bob Baffert glowed like a mare in foal. "I think it's great for California racing. It gives us a chance to show people it's the most beautiful racetrack in America," Baffert said. "It's our chance to show off Santa Anita." Alrighty then, Bob.
Back at the corral, as the racing world turned, The Stronach Group told Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer to drop off the face of the Earth, or at least Stronach's world. They banned him with a couple days left in the meet not only from Santa Anita, where he lost four horses, but Stronach's Golden Gate Fields, where he lost two others this year, and notable Stronach tracks Gulfstream, Pimlico and Laurel. There'd be too much heat at Del Mar later this summer, as its Fairgrounds location is owned by the State of California and managed by the 22nd District Agricultural Association. Del Mar also told Hollendorfer to get lost.
He lost Battle of Midway during a workout in February, after the Smart Strike colt had won the San Pascual, returning to racing after infertility problems. He won a dramatic Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in 2017 and finished a game third in that year's Kentucky Derby. He was a fine, fine horse that I was watching. Hollendorfer's most famous trainees include the scintillating mare Songbird, Blind Luck and Shared Belief.
Hollendorfer made his bones and fattened up dominating the B- or C-level Golden Gate in the Bay area. With 7,617 career wins from 33,519 starts lifetime, he ranks third all-time.
Santa Anita handed Hollendorfer a loaded bomb as they threw him through the saloon doors.
"Individuals who do not embrace the new rules and safety measures that put horse and rider safety above all else, will have no place at any Stronach Group racetrack," the statement reads. "We regret that Mr. Hollendorfer's record in recent months at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields has become increasingly challenging and does not match the level of safety and accountability we demand. Effective immediately, Mr. Hollendorfer is no longer welcome to stable, race or train his horses at any of our facilities."
In a CNN report by Nick Watt, chief veterinary officer of The Stronach Group, Dionne Benson, leveled what seemed tangible allegations at Hollendorfer: "We'd just gotten information, you know, what he's done. His violations."
Horse owner Scott Herbertson, who lost two horses under Hollendorfer, was succinct in his appraisal of the Hall of Famer. When asked how he felt when Hollendorfer claimed one of his horses, Herbertson said, "You cringe."
Jim Cassidy, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, summing up Hollendorfer upon learning of his 19 drug violations since 2006, said, "That doesn't surprise me. Jerry is just tunnel vision. He does what he wants to do and that's it. You don't like it, it's too bad."
Are there specific violations? Or did Hollendorfer just tell some wonk suit to go to hell? If - big if - racing has the structure to investigate a guy like Hollendorfer, does it simply lack the will? Or is it the classic find a guy to blame? Either way, Hollendorfer has paid less than $17,000 in fines for those violations. Lifetime earnings? A Pick Six bet under $200 million.
Will racing give him the Captain Bligh treatment and cast him adrift? Um, no. He's already resumed his operations at Los Alamitos and the New York Racing Association is rolling out the red carpet for Belmont and Saratoga. New Jersey's Monmouth Park is also A-OK.
While we don't know if Hollendorfer egregiously broke any state racing laws, wouldn't get with the Santa Anita program or just rubbed people the wrong way, before he crossed the perceived threshold of horses perishing, he was giving Santa Anita just what it wanted: runners, and lots of them.
You've heard me complain about horses not running enough. But that was about top-level, bonafide stars or super runners. Look at it the other way. There's got to be somebody running all those races from Saratoga to Del Mar with Mountaineer and Lone Star and Arlington in between. And there needed to be wagers made. The pressure was on at Santa Anita.
Tired horses, or lesser horses, were needed to fill races. Draper quoted one official:
It was the perfect storm of terrible weather, a dearth of horses - many of them who shouldn't have been running here," said Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. "There was a big push to fill races, and some people haven't been as cautious as they should have, on both sides."
Horses need a boost? Enter the drugs.
The Santa Anita organization under COO Tim Ritvo, the guy really in charge during all this death, had one method to get the point across: Eviction. Your monthly "rent" to have stalls at Santa Anita, and other tracks, is to run horses, fill races. While Draper quoted Belinda Stronach saying "No one has said that you can't be here if you don't run," that cannot be the complete and simple truth. It's a diversion at least, but more probably an outright lie. I'm sick and goddamned tired of people lying, and they're not even good at it anymore.
Ask trainers Karen Headley and Mick Ruis.
"Trainer Karen Headley was told that her previous 20-stall (Santa Anita) barn would be halved, on account of reportedly missing the number of individual starters she was expected to make at the recent winter/spring meet at Santa Anita," Dan Ross reported in the Thoroughbred Daily News. Doesn't that sound kind of like a quota?
Ruis took a double-hit. Not only did they reduce his stalls, they dispersed the ones he did get all over the property. Ruis takes the David-and-Goliath approach. "It's just unfair for the little guys if one, two, three, four, five other people that are at that track get the majority [of the stalls], and the little guys get nothing," Ruis told the TDN. "Everyone one of those [big number] guys worked hard to get where they're at. No one's taking that away. But is that where you want the game to go to?"
But couple in the pressure to fill fields. Santa Anita recorded 7.85 horses per race in 2018 and 7.57, 7.77 and 8.17 the three years before that. Those are okay numbers. I remember when Santa Anita and Hollywood Park would have days with no more than six horses in a race and very often three runners coming out of the gate. So they cranked up the takeout (vig, house skim), which exploded into a successful betting boycott engineered by HANA, the Horseplayers Association of America. For its survival, Santa Anita had to restore some balance.
It's not unreasonable to ask for owners and trainers to meet a responsibility to run their horses while taking up valuable stall space. But when things orbit out of control, horses are run more than they should be, more drugs are added and horses start dying. You can bet Jerry Hollendorfer was doing his part to fill races and keep his stalls.
Circus & Supply
The story is so important. But the curiosity and thoroughness in its illumination is what's needed the most. In the case of American horse racing, the way this story is told, in these flash fire times, will be a story in itself. Is horse racing in trouble? Because of this? Did we think we would ever lose the circuses and their elephants?
Shops like HBO's Real Sports are no help. Pretty boy dilettante Bryant Gumbel and cardboard grizzled reporter Bernard Goldberg clearly phoning it in for the money betray their ineptitude through prima donna posing and screaming laziness.
Yeah, they did the story, peppered of course, with multiple videos of horses crashing and dying, some of the same footage two or three times. All they could muster was, "It's the drugs." They didn't touch on the business of horse racing, the breeding, the lack of oversight. They didn't talk about the discussions now attempted to find a solution. They couldn't be bothered to talk about racing in the way most people in America see it, on the first Saturday in May on television or in a November Breeders' Cup weekend. In the second half of their piece, they went back to a story they did several years ago about the horse slaughterhouses.
Those sons of bitches have been given a powerful forum and are paid a lot of money. For this? When Gumbel gives us the serious look with the first finger with the pen in it on his temple, I hope they both spear his cornea. Goldberg got a free trip to Paris out of it.
All of that aside, while I can't say I wasn't aware of these problems, when I did just basic research, I will have to be honest and say the entire history of TrackNotes flashed before my eyes and the horse racing game took on new and even more complicated dimensions.
Supply and demand.
The Jockey Club, which keeps track of these things but is more famous for overseeing the naming of race horses, reports on the downturn in the production of registered Thoroughbred foals. Less than half as many as in 1990. But has racing shrunk? Not really. Horsemen claw like wolves to maintain racing dates, even in Illinois. While Hawthorne Race Course battles with Arlington for dates, and Arlington gets preference, the number of dates has not gone down.
There are tracks in this country that run races for the sole purpose of keeping their slots or casino licenses. Calder, a stellar example of Churchill Downs Inc. evil, hosts what is called Gulfstream Park West, run by the Stronachs. Let the paint peel and tear down half the barns to build strip malls, but the gaming must continue, under the hypocrisy that they are all about the horses and the racing.
The same can be said for Fair Grounds (Churchill), Charlestown, Parx (formerly Philadelphia), Mountaineer, Indiana Downs, ad infinitum. Even Aqueduct was close to demise until it got slots. With the possible exception of Aqueduct and the neglected and tired tradition of Fair Grounds, those are all cheap-ass bullrings that do some of the worst things to keep racing going.
On a more subtle note, Churchill Downs and Arlington Park, corporate siblings, are running at the same time, now, competing for the same type of horses and even the very same horses. Why? Throw in Indiana, Delaware, Canterbury (which has admirably carved out its own productive and loyalty-based niche), and Downstate Fairmount, where do the horses come from, and how often are they forced to race? I would be hard-pressed to tell you what months Monmouth doesn't run.
Then there are the horse deaths themselves, which would bring even hardened wiseguys with any kind of pulse to tears.
Humans vs. Horses
While the Santa Anita story is valuable as a portrait of this issue, The Great Race Place is just run of the mill.
Horse fatality numbers posted by the Louisville Courier-Journal, in the home of Churchill Downs, tell the sordid black truth about racing as a whole in America.
For parochialists, we see that our very own Hawthorne had an abominable 2.99 horses per thousand race starts die last year - a full horse per thousand more than the year before, on a rising rate. When it happened in the demographically important white suburban Arlington Heights in 2007, Chicago media jumped on it like the last lifeboat, even though it never told the story of Arlington choosing profit over the costs of properly maintaining the track on that last turn. It effected the installation of the artificial surface. Which I'm starting to change my mind about.
Churchill Downs is about the deadliest track in America, based on the level it pretends to be on. Santa Anita is consistently high. Del Mar, which has had very bad moments, is going down, which coincides with its escape from the California edict requiring artificial surfaces. It was unmanageable at Del Mar with the daily extremes in heat and moisture.
For the curious, Arlington Park divulges just about no information about anything.
What now? The problems are lack of breeding for durability, drug administration unparalleled in the global racing world, the lack of a cohesive regulatory structure and a typically American lack of will to make change, in the pursuit of profits.
Is American horse racing in danger? With modern social media, that's a possibility. I can't gauge the effect reports by ABC News, CNN or HBO may have. The attention deficit syndrome of modern American society precludes unified action against to some degree. NBC won't cover it, they've bought the television rights. Racing trades are missing in action.
While the people of California have petitioned their feelings against racing, I'm not sure we can dismiss the pull of tradition and the romantic eloquence given to the horse and cowboy spirits. Stop and think where humanity, especially Americans, would be without horses. On a practical level, there are also tax revenues to consider, which is why racing was resuscitated in the early 20th century to begin with.
Save for the lone voices of the Jockey Club and a few select participants in the game, the broad brush of shame should color all of them, from titular Bob Baffert to new wonderboy Chad "He doesn't lose on turf" Brown to the Casses to Pletcher. It took them years to get rid of Richard Dutrow, whose hand slap was a helluva lot better than Big Brown (pull-up at 2:12) dying, which he very well could have.
This is by no means the epiphany. That's a thing you just know, when it happens. I have deep sadness and gnawing questions about horse racing. Racing has always been about walking around with a little horseshit on your shoes, rubbing elbows with people you'd never even run into except for the jawing about the favorite in the fifth race. Common pursuit that erases all the irrelevance. You really can get lightheaded over a 'Pharoah, a 'Chrome, wonderful Rachel' and perennial Gio Ponti.
It's oppressively burdensome to doubt that American racing can do better, when we know so much now and other nations have given us a model to live by, if we would just listen and act.
It would be infinitely easy to just walk away from this. Totally justifiable, but solving nothing. But it's not time. Especially when the M.O. around here is to reveal all nine sides of the story no matter effing what. Because we care to and know how to do it. Some things need to be done.
It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that Secretariat, the Big Red of mystic mythology and documented dreams, benefitted from anabolic steroids.
That's the double life.
The New York Racing Association has reversed itself and will prevent Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer from entering and running horses under his own name as the prestigious Saratoga summer meet approaches.
The meet opens July 11.
It is expected Hollendorfer assistant trainer Don Chatlos Jr. will enter any Hollendorfer horses under his own name, including the most prominent Brill in the Victory Ride Stakes at Belmont July 5 and Rowayton in the Dwyer Stakes July 6. NYRA regulates and manages all horse racing in New York State.
Hollendorfer said that he was told by NYRA attorneys that if he entered horses under his own name, they would summarily be scratched.
The decision continues the fallout of Hollendorfer being banned from all tracks owned by The Stronach Group, most notably Santa Anita, after four of his horses perished in the recently completed Santa Anita meet. Two more of his died at Stronach's Golden Gate Fields this spring.
Chatlos' proxy in entering horses is reminiscent of Scott Blasi taking over in the mid 2000s when his boss, Steve Asmussen, was suspended. Blasi is credited with doing the real training grunt work with racing legends Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.
Hollendorfer maintains that Del Mar has not decided on his participation at that West Coast boutique meet, which begins July 17. He is training and has stall space at Los Alamitos, which is east and north of Long Beach, Calif.
From this perspective, NYRA's action will ostensibly stymie the specter of massive protests as Saratoga, considered the premier meet in racing at America's oldest track, runs its 2019 stakes-loaded schedule. The risk-reward quotient does not compute as Hollendorfer by any means would only have a single-digit number of runners in New York anyway.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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Posted on Oct 11, 2021