Threshold at Santa Anita: A World Where One Is One Too Many

An alarming number of horses have passed away at one of horse racing’s most recognizable racetracks.

Updated: March 9, 2019 • 10:05 AM ET

Santa Anita Park has a serious issue at hand.

It’s official — Santa Anita Racetrack has crossed a threshold. Starting on December 26, the situation has moved from what was first thought to be isolated deaths to what has become the euthanizing of 19 prized horses. Stakes winners to claimers passed away; they all matter.

Then, the situation escalated into what was perceived as a full-blown image problem after a thoroughbred went down last Saturday in an actual race, and another on Tuesday during training. At this point, it appeared that nothing would be sufficient to halt the protests and keep the storied race place from ceasing all activities; so mid-week, that’s precisely what they did.

I’ll go further, though, and argue that this situation is more than about image; rather, it could be a nexus of events. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a moment that has the potential to cleave this sport in half. I don’t make this statement lightly.

This is where American thoroughbred horse racing has to change its practices or possibly be destroyed forever. Fatalistic I know, but not unfounded. A threshold crossed means the gong has sounded. As Thomas Jefferson said of slavery, “like a firebell in the night.”

Sure, turf writers, racing enthusiasts, degenerate gamblers and folks tightly woven among the community will shrug and defend. They’ll split hairs and debate about using the nearby training facility at Santa Anita because of the more favorable sand components. Since no fatalities have occurred there, it does seem like an option. Heck, at this point, I’m sure the Stronachs would consider holding the San Felipe Stakes there if it meant getting racing going.

But, that’s a micro perspective. Let’s think bigger.

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Certainly, other racetracks in the recent past have learned from death at their ovals, namely Del Mar in 2016 and Aqueduct back in 2011-12. I’m not suggesting that a crisis cannot lead to a positive turn of events, like new rules, more testing and oversight. The macro problem, though, is that this sport, much like football, has an exceedingly reactive strategy when it comes to things like injuries. Getting out in front is difficult; it has too many moving parts, too many interests and unlike the NFL, not enough centralized authority.

There’s the toothless Jockey Club of America. As I pointed out in a previous piece, they don’t even have the capability to accrue and publish all the thoroughbreds that are euthanized at every American track each year. Hardly transparency and a means to build trust.

As for the states that govern their own tracks, I trust them, for the most part. But, how much do they understand about racing? Most want to cut funding, since it’s associated with the seediness of gambling. Not all are as progressive as New York. Perhaps if they see the revenue generating capabilities in light of the sports betting movement, it will become more appealing. I won’t hold my breath.

There’s a more serious shift that also needs to be considered.

We cannot turn the clocks back because American culture, the media and our world will not let it. In the wake of this confounding as to why horses are dying, Santa Anita news outlets are abuzz, PETA soldiers have boots on the ground and everyone from track gurus to animal scientists are on speed dial.

Quotes are flying. Phrases like, “when the training community is satisfied…” seems presumptuous to me. This isn’t about the racing community. It has become larger than that.

It seems odd to me that discussions of soil mixed with quizzical brows are searching for answers. Rain gauges and radar will be tools to uncover this mystery? Chatter that there’s “no silver bullet” in this situation seems to be a canned response from everyone from the track officials to the state of California — Begging the question, is this one of those seminal moments in the history of horse racing?

I think it is.

Culture wars are raging in our political worlds, and they’re spilling over into the unlikeliest of places. Facebook and Amazon face Congressional oversight and are constantly seeking to reinvent themselves. Everyone seeks a spot in the sun for more than 15 minutes.

Fake news makes us wonder, and it appears levels of civility in public spaces is on the run. A small pill once thought to relieve pain has become an over-prescribed monster. The answers to all questions are on Google, but that doesn’t make us smarter or more capable. I digress, but could easily go on.

Think about this: Santa Anita represents one of the foremost bastions concerning horse health, support and wellness. It’s a breeding ground of science, veterinarian training and best practices. It’s the Yankee Stadium, the Lambeau Field and a cadre of University Hospitals all rolled into one. If they cannot provide viable answers, who can?

Another major point comes to mind. If they choose to re-open the track after a week or so of investigations, whether they find something or not, and one horse has to be put down because of racing or training, how will they explain it?

Surveying the field, the sport has painted itself into a corner by being overly reactive. At this stage, short of cancelling the spring season, which lasts too long anyway in this author’s opinion, what can they do? Simply, hope that this set of events will go away?

In my estimation, I would close down six to eight months. Re-evaluate and move towards a revolutionary model in horse racing that would go even further than New York did back in 2012.

This is the threshold moment where horse racing has to change. Who cares if the Santa Anita Handicap was cancelled for the first time since the Second World War? There are larger, more important events afoot. These fragile animals deserve it; remember they are willing to run until their hearts burst!

It’s your move Stronach Group. You own the Great Race Place. It may not be so for much longer.

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