Has Santa Anita Lost the Right to Host the Breeders’ Cup?

Still in the midst of a storm of controversy due to a disturbing number of deaths at the track, Santa Anita Park will host this year’s Breeders’ Cup.

Updated: June 27, 2019 • 8:50 PM ET

Santa Anita Racetrack has seen its share of unpleasant moments.

Come 1-2 November, the Breeders’ Cup will return to Santa Anita Park — A fairly innocuous sentence, right?

After all, the Championships have been there a record number of times before; and unlike Churchill, Keeneland or any of the NYRA tracks, “The Great Race Place” environs exude consistent temps and picturesque history into one venue.

Entering 2019, all was well, until a public relations earthquake arrived in Southern California. At first, horse deaths at an American racetrack seemed normal. Those in power did what they always do: shrug and offer heartfelt condolences.

Steadily, like that boulder at the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” March proved overwhelming as the death toll rose even further. Finally, the powerful Stronach Group, which owns the place, relented and tabled racing for a short time. Soil tests revealed little, if any cause. So, play resumed, as did the fatalities.

Calls from many quadrants became a chorus. Government officials and PETA wanted everything from the track to close permanently to a “cooling off” period. Maybe they reasoned that this would allow more thorough investigations to take place. In the end, the Stronach Group and California Horse Racing Board engaged in a public tug-of-war, as lines in the sand were drawn over who should control the running of the horses.

Precedent dictated that whoever owned the track could set the parameters of the meet; nothing could be done by anyone from the outside. Owners, trainers, jockeys and those associated with the backstretch (the exercise riders, hot walkers and stall attendants) saw their livelihoods flash before their eyes as they attempted solidarity.

On June 22-23, Santa Anita’s meet ended unceremoniously with the banning of Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer for nefarious practices. Thus, a collective sigh of relief was issued, and the curtain went down — no applause needed.

Yet, much debate remains. What caused all those horse deaths? Did the track do enough to protect them? Did the media blow this story beyond control? Behind the scenes, what were the economic and political implications involved?

In the end, more questions remained than answers, as rain, equine physiology and genetics, and trainer methodologies were all placed under a very public microscope. Some called the media, “egregious” in their practices of reporting the story. But, didn’t this start long ago when horse racing became a marginal sport in relation to others that gained momentum in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s?

In light of this arc of events, should Santa Anita host the Breeders’ Cup in November?

I don’t think so. I believe they have lost that right.

The Breeders’ Cup is intended to be an international exhibition of the greatest horse racing talent anywhere on Earth. If horses come and the track leads to death, what then for American racing?

Still, there’s something else, something even more insidious here. The way the Stronach Group handled the situation during the first half of 2019, and the power plays by those government officials and PETA members that were supposedly made on behalf of the equine athletes were equally despicable and self-motivated.

What we know from history is that a monopoly of power causes corruption. That is what this situation uncovered.

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A vast network of smoke and mirrors disturbs me to no end. It makes me feel like horse racing in North America has no ability to govern itself properly or to be governed as such.

At this point, honestly, I don’t care where the Breeders’ Cup is held because we’ve painted ourselves into a proverbial corner. If it’s moved to another site, radicals who want to see horse racing die will exclaim, ‘huzzah.’ On the other hand, if it remains in Arcadia, a black cloud will hover above; and in November, fans will gasp as horses round every turn, praying that a breakdown doesn’t occur. The only hope is that when Santa Anita reopens in September, all goes well.

In the end, nothing will truly change for this sport until corruption is stamped out by an autonomous centralized horse racing authority.  Until small, localized, oversight and “pretender” organizations that are backed by greedy lobbyists and politicians can be found on the trash heap of history, horse racing appears destined for obscurity.

As for me, I will be happy as a clam; why a clam, anyway? That’s because I’ll be streaming racing from Hong Kong, Tokyo, Australia, Johannesburg, the UAE, Britain and Ireland, and France.

Fait accompli, America.

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