Commentary: World Watching as Santa Anita Evaluates Track Condition

To say all eyes are on horse racing this week would be an understatement.

Santa Anita Race Track, the jewel of West Coast thoroughbred racing, is under a microscope worldwide this week as the track addresses safety issues related to the recent break down of horses.  Since the start of the race meet December 26th, the Arcadia race track has had 21 fatalities either training or racing on the track surface.  Make no mistake about it — something is terribly wrong.

During the previous two seasons at Santa Anita, 10 horses and 8, respectively, died from injuries, during the same time frame, directly related to racing or training.  The truth of the matter is that Santa Anita has as many as 3,000 horses in training at any given time.  So, the death of race horses is an issue every track, in every country, deals with on a regular basis.  According to the Jockey Club, in 2018, 1.62 horses died in North American racing for every 1,000 starts.  That is a pretty impressive safety record when you compare it to the number of racehorses in training nationally.

Regardless, Santa Anita, and thoroughbred racing, is in the forefront of the news for all the wrong reasons.  The problems at Santa Anita have caught the attention of the world, and something needs to be done immediately to ensure the health and well being of the athletes as Santa Anita moves forward into the main part of it’s Spring racing schedule.  If not, then racing will receive a black eye at a time when the sport is in the forefront of news — during the three months leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

To combat the problem, Santa Anita officials have employed Dennis Moore, the former track superintendent at Santa Anita.  Moore, who currently runs race track maintenance at Del Mar and Los Alamitos race tracks, is a trusted advisor who used to run the track surface at Santa Anita.  Moore is a third generation track superintendent. To many, he is an expert.  To most, he could be a savior.  Moore is entrusted to find out what exactly is happening to the race track.

As it stands now, the theory is that all the rain, and unusual stormy weather in Southern California, has dramatically effected the make-up of the race track.  The layers that constitute the composition of the track have been dramatically altered by the worst weather Southern California has seen in almost 100 years.  Recommendations range from redoing the surface, to closing the track when bad weather hits, to closing the track altogether.

Southern California rarely deals with the kinds of storms that hit the region in the last 60 days.  In one stretch, during the week of Valentines Day, there were some areas that received 7-9 inches of rain in a 12 hour period.  Mass flooding and erosion of many hillsides has been the norm this winter.  Clearly, that much water has had a negative effect on the main track at Santa Anita.

Now, Santa Anita has some decisions to make.

On one had, they can sit back, mope, stay quiet, and let Moore do his thing.  Or, they can do what they should be doing, which is get out in front of this and inform the public, hourly and daily, of the specific things they are mandating to improve the track conditions.  Thoroughbred racing is usually in the spot light one week a year during the Kentucky Derby.  The tragedy at Santa Anita has changed that fact. Here is to hoping Santa Anita can turn a negative into a positive and reverse the negative image the last few weeks has cast on this sport we love.

The media often jumps on the bandwagon to chastise thoroughbred racing.  Arguments made over the years is that racing is dying do to declining attendance; it’s an old people’s sport; and, now, track safety is giving the sport another headache.  Hogwash I say.  That’s right, I said Hogwash.

Thoroughbred racing is more popular than ever.  In the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, when there was no internet or Off Track Betting, thousands used to flock to the race track on weekends.  Now, those same thousands can stay home in the comfort of their living room where they can bet on any horse race in the world.  Enthusiasm for the game is at al all-time high.  If you question that fact, and whether or not thoroughbred racing is an “old people’s sport”, then just go to the races at Saratoga, or Del Mar, or Keeneland, or Oaklawn.  It is there where you will see the pulse of American thoroughbred racing.

Today, thoroughbred racing is watched by more people than ever before.  The sport is running for more money than ever in the history of the game.  And, as such, the sport and its marquee events — like the Kentucky Derby and Breeders Cup — are flourishing.  This Spring, Santa Anita has an opportunity to continue that trend.  But, before they do so, they first must address a serious problem that, right now, is giving the sport of thoroughbred racing a bad name.

 

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