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Hall of Fame trainer banned as Santa Anita’s troubled season ends with 30 horse deaths

The track’s mortality rate has caused ructions within American horse racing, particularly in California.

Outriders wait for the first race during the last day of the winter/spring meet at the Santa Anita horse racing track on Sunday.
Outriders wait for the first race during the last day of the winter/spring meet at the Santa Anita horse racing track on Sunday.
Image: Chris Carlson

A TROUBLED RACING season at California’s Santa Anita track concluded with the suspension of a Hall of Fame trainer further doubts as to the sustainability of the meeting.

Santa Anita has seen 30 horse deaths since 26 December, raising alarm within the industry and plunging the sport into an unwelcome national spotlight across the pond, HBO and CNN leading the mainstream criticism with hard-hitting investigative pieces.

Of the 30 horses to have died at Santa Anita over the last seven months, four have belonged to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. The fourth was euthanised on Saturday after suffering an injury on the training track.

Hollendorfer had two horses entered to run on Sunday, but they, along with two of his other entries a day prior, were withdrawn by track stewards on the recommendation of a special panel convened to review horses’ medical, training and racing history. (This panel was created only last week and rejected a total of 38 horses that were due to run over the final six days of racing).

The 73-year-old Hollendorfer was subsequently suspended by track owners The Stronach Group and ordered to remove his horses from their Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields premises in Northern California; two more of Hollendorfer’s horses had died at the latter, Santa Anita’s sister track, this season.

Santa Anita Fatalities Horse Racing horse trainer Jerry Hollendorfer in the paddock at Turfway Park race track in Florence, Ky., in 2014. Source: Garry Jones

The Stronach Group said in a statement that Hollendorfer is “no longer welcome to stable, race, or train his horses at any of our facilities.”

The storm surrounding Santa Anita began in earnest in late February when the Los Angeles Times wrote about the spike in horse fatalities after Battle of Midway, a Breeders’ Cup race winner, became the 17th casualty since the meeting opened on St Stephen’s Day 2018.

As the death count continued to rise, it drew the ire and action of animal rights’ protesters and politicians, including California governor Gavin Newsom and US senator Dianne Feinstein, the latter of whom called for racing to stop while training and racing conditions were inspected.

The results of an investigation by the California Horse Racing Board are expected in the next fortnight or so, and will be turned over to the L.A. County District Attorney’s office to merge with that agency’s own investigation.

Horse Racing 2019: Santa Anita Backside Awareness Rally JUNE 20 Backstretch workers rally at Santa Anita Park. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The majority of the deaths at Santa Anita this year occurred during the winter months when the usually arid area was hit with record rainfall.

In all this season, 24 days of racing were lost either in the name of safety or due to not having enough horses to race four days a week, and two major Kentucky Derby and Oaks prep races were never run.

Last Thursday, about 500 backstretch workers at Santa Anita — many of them from Mexico and Guatemala — rallied to ask for help in protecting their jobs, emphasising their commitment to the wellbeing of the horses in their care.

This coming Thursday, those workers will wait anxiously as the board of the Breeders’ Cup meet in Lexington, Kentucky, where they will likely make a call as to whether Santa Anita should still host the Breeders’ Cup races on 1 and 2 November.

However, the LA Times reports that if the races are indeed relocated, it will be to Churchill Downs, which at 2.73 deaths per 1,000 starts had a higher mortality rate than Santa Anita last year (2.04).

Santa Anita Horse Racing Eddie Haskell, right, with jockey Kent Desormeaux aboard, wins the third race during the last day of the winter/spring meet at the Santa Anita horse racing track on Sunday 23 June. Source: Chris Carlson

Trainers such as Doug O’Neill, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, are dismayed that their sport is under fire in America.

“The important thing is that they are accidents and accidents happen,” O’Neill told the Associated Press. “I can you tell in the 32 years I’ve been back here I’ve never seen one case of an abuse.”

“All aspects of all reforms have to be looked at and we have to do it by working with our stakeholders,” Belinda Stronach, CEO and president of The Stronach Group, said on Thursday.

Because of the circumstances, the industry has had to take a hard look inward to see what we can be doing better. That’s one of the positives that has come out of what has occurred. Santa Anita is now the safest and best track in the world.

“All the measures have to be in place to ensure the safety of the horses and riders,” she added. “It’s an ongoing process and we are just at the beginning. I see it across the country. We need both transparency and accountability. Without transparency, you can’t have accountability.”

Santa Anita Horse Racing Norberto Arroyo Jr., top, celebrates after riding Amalfi Sunrise to victory in the fourth race during the last day. Source: Chris Carlson

Racing at Los Alamitos begins on 29 June, and the California Horse Racing Board will deploy a panel to review all horses entered to run on the Orange County track.

Per AP, Los Alamitos will “gladly” provide stalls to Hollendorfer, whom track owner Edward Allred called “an unexcelled horseman.”

“Unless forbidden by the California Horse Racing Board, we intend to permit entries from Hollendorfer,” Allred said in a statement. “We do not feel he should be a scapegoat for a problem which derives from a number of factors.”

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