Racing and training are both scheduled to resume after surface safety was examined.
By Jeremy Balan
Santa Anita Park will open up its main track for training Feb. 28 and will also race in the afternoon as scheduled, after two days of evaluation and maintenance because of an increased number of equine fatalities at the Southern California racetrack.
The announcement about the track reopening came via a text message alert to horsemen at 5:38 p.m. PT Feb. 27.
In the two days the main track was closed for training (Feb. 26-27), track superintendent Andy LaRocco and consultant Mick Peterson (the director of Ag Equine Programs at the University of Kentucky) “peeled back” the surface cushion on the dirt surface and evaluated the pad level and base level underneath. Peterson analyzed soil samples throughout the process and conducted “ground-penetrating radar” tests Wednesday.
Peterson said his evaluation and study of the surface revealed there was “nothing to suggest there’s any problems there.”
The Stronach Group owns Santa Anita, and the organization’s chief operating officer, Tim Ritvo, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, but did comment in a statement issued by the racetrack’s publicity department Wednesday night.
“At the Stronach Group, we consider the safety and security of the athletes, both equine and human, who race at our facilities, to be our top priority,” Ritvo said in the statement. “All industry stakeholders, including our company, must be held accountable for the safety and security of the horses, and we are committed to doing just that.”
Peterson said the track’s pad (the portion between the base and cushion) and cushion layer are currently being renovated and will continue to be renovated to get the surface ready for Thursday, and said there was “no reason not to” clear the track for training and racing.
“They mixed things really carefully yesterday, so it’s very consistent out there now. … I’m 100% behind them (reopening the track) and we’ll do everything we can to understand what is going on going forward,” Peterson said.
Peterson said earlier in the week he was working off the assumption that there was an issue with “segregation” of the material on the main track during a winter in California that has featured abnormally high levels of rain. When it rains the finer material of the top cushion level of the racetrack “moves to the inside rail with the water as it’s washing across the surface,” Peterson said.
Although he was working off that assumption, Peterson said he didn’t see any evidence of an issue with the track during his two days of study.
“I didn’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything there (previously),” Peterson said.
Since the beginning of Santa Anita’s racing season Dec. 26 there have been 19 equine fatalities during racing or training, but they have been relatively spread out into different categories. From the 11 fatalities that have occurred because of injuries during racing, six have come from injuries on the main track and five have come on the turf. Of the eight fatalities from training, one was classified as a “sudden death” by the CHRB, meaning it was not related to a physical musculoskeletal injury. The other seven were from injuries sustained on the main track, and none were associated with injuries on the training track.
Jim Cassidy, the president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said his constituents “are ready to race and train tomorrow, but believe me there is an optimistic caution. I don’t know how else to say it.”
Cassidy also said he was apprehensive about rain expected to hit Southern California in the next few days. There is a chance of light precipitation overnight at the Arcadia, Calif., track, and Peterson, who is going to remain in Southern California until March 2, said three-quarters of an inch of rain is expected Saturday.
“Absolutely,” Cassidy said, when asked if the potential for rain gave him pause. “They seal the track, and sometimes it’s better the next day and sometimes it’s better three days later. You just do the best you can to look at it and evaluate it, but at the end of the day you just hold your breath.”
Peterson said he is confident the track will handle the precipitation, but also noted the type of rain matters when considering how to care for the dirt surface.
“Keep in mind, the other thing that matters is not only the amount of rain, but how fast it comes,” Peterson said. “If it all comes in a short period of time, the track handles it differently than the same amount of rain spread across a longer period of time.”
Cassidy didn’t assign blame to the racing surface for the fatalities in recent months, and stressed the imprecise nature of attempting to evaluate a series of racehorse breakdowns as a whole.
“Nobody is more cautious than I have been, but sometimes you get a breakdown that you don’t understand,” Cassidy said. “We cancel works on a daily basis, because we don’t like the way the track is playing. But that’s just me. It’s hard to say (what should be blamed).
“I had a lovely filly who broke a leg on the turf course. She never had an issue, and she broke her leg in the stakes. And I’m beside myself. Was the turf a problem? I don’t know what to say.”
Peterson also stressed the importance of examining other factors related to the equine deaths at Santa Anita this season, but those results in full, via necropsies conducted through the California Horse Racing Board and UC Davis, won’t be available for weeks or months.
“We can immediately address every issue we can see, but the necropsies take more time,” Peterson said. “We need to look at everything—that goes for UC Davis, (CHRB equine medical director) Dr. (Rick) Arthur, and the other pathologists. We’ll measure moisture (levels of the main track) and evaluate the critical decisions when to switch from a sealed to an open track. But the other part of it is what will come from the necropsies—not that a cluster (of fatalities) will make any sense after necropsies.”
When asked if there were any preliminary findings related to the injuries and fatalities at Santa Anita this meet, Arthur said “it’s too early in the process” to draw any conclusions.
“It takes a long time to get everything together and collate, so it’s too early to say,” Arthur said.
Earlier in the day Wednesday, Santa Anita announced to horsemen a change to its workout policy at Santa Anita. Beginning March 1, Santa Anita racing secretary Steve Lym said, the first 10 minutes after the first and second renovation breaks during morning training will be reserved for workers only, rather than a combination of workers, gallopers, and joggers. Del Mar instituted a similar policy late in its 2016 summer meet and has maintained it since.
“With the traffic we have out here, it gives (workers) 10 minutes where they don’t have to work in the one or two path,” Lym said of Santa Anita’s normal workout policies, which allows for workers to stay on the inside of the track, while gallopers travel in the middle lanes and horses walk in the outer lanes. “It takes pressure off those paths, and if a horse wants to work in the three or four path, they can.
“Some horsemen may not be happy with it, but so far, for the most part, most have been OK with it.”
Lym said the change in training policy was not associated with the safety of the track surface, specifically regarding potential issues related to overuse of the inside lanes during training.
“No. This was me being new and asking questions,” Lym said. “Someone told me Del Mar does it, and I thought we should try it.”