Live racing is scheduled to return to Santa Anita March 22, The Stronach Group officials told Daily Racing Form and Blood-Horse Sunday, if all goes well with the main track under the microscope. Bill Finley of Thoroughbred Daily News had reported the March 22 target date on Saturday.
Update: Later Sunday, The Stronach Group COO Tim Ritvo issued a statement without specifying a date to resume, emphasizing that the main track “will remain closed for live racing until outside experts let us know that it is safe to resume racing.” His full statement is posted at the bottom.
The Arcadia, California, track called off racing and training after the 21st equine fatality of the meet on March 5, pending further testing and evaluation of the surface. The inner training track, which had not been involved in any of the catastrophic injuries, was also examined.
As a result of the closure, the meet lost its marquee March 9 card, highlighted by the Santa Anita H. (G1). The Big ‘Cap will be transferred to April 6, already a big day featuring the Santa Anita Derby (G1).
But the San Felipe (G2), the final prep for the Santa Anita Derby, could not be restored in sufficient time. The March 9 renewal was to have served up an epic clash of Bob Baffert’s unbeaten Kentucky Derby (G1) hopefuls, champion Game Winner and Improbable, who will now ship to Oaklawn Park for the March 16 Rebel (G2). With training at Santa Anita also halted, Baffert and several other trainers sent their stable stars to Los Alamitos, where Game Winner and Improbable worked Sunday.
Two other stakes initially set for March 9, the San Carlos (G2) and Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1), will now be held on March 23 and March 30, respectively. The Beholder (G1) is pushed from March 16 to March 23, while the San Simeon (G3) is penciled in for March 22. The Irish O’Brien shifts two weeks after St Patrick’s Day to March 31.
This weekend’s Santa Ysabel (G3) and China Doll, however, will join the San Felipe on hiatus this year. Although not yet reflected on the Santa Anita website, the April 20 Californian (G2) will be canceled as well according to DRF and Blood-Horse, coming just two weeks after the repositioned Big ‘Cap.
Santa Anita’s training track re-opened for light exercise on March 8, and the main oval will follow suit Monday at 5 a.m. (PDT). Likewise restricted to joggers and gallopers, training hours on the main track will still include the three regular renovation breaks from 6-6:30 a.m., 7:15-7:45 a.m., and 8:30-9 a.m. Track officials forecast that timed works would be allowed on the main oval “in the coming days,” according to a Saturday press release.
“Over the past four days, we’ve been able to do a great deal in terms of amending the soil and inspecting it,” veteran trackman Dennis Moore said in the release.
Moore was brought back in a consulting role to oversee track maintenance personnel and third-party experts, among them California Horse Racing Board representatives. In addition to thorough visual inspections, Moore is performing analysis on soil samples and test data generated by Dr. Mick Peterson, director of the University of Kentucky’s Agricultural Equine Program and professor of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.
“I think the most important thing with this track right now is that we closely monitor compaction levels,” Moore said. “With all the rain, and this is the case in any wet winter, the ‘fines,’ silt and sand, can change very quickly and that affects the clays as well. Compaction, as well as dilution, of silt and sand, are all factors in the overall composition of the soil.
“More specifically, it’s been very helpful that we have not had any significant rain since this past Wednesday. We’ve been able to harrow, roto-till and aerate the soil throughout each day in order to get a uniform track profile and that’s helped Mick in his efforts. With all of this, the objective is to get the ideal composition throughout our six-inch cushion.”
Peterson uses an Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester that simulates the force and speed of a Thoroughbred’s leading foreleg when running at full speed. That enables the capture of data to quantify firmness, cushioning, grip and consistency at points all over the track.
“We’ve reviewed Mick’s research and it clearly indicates our cushion is right where it needs to be,” Moore said. “We also acknowledge that things can happen even under perfect circumstances, but from everything we’ve been able to learn, this track is in outstanding condition and it’s ready for training.”
In addition to the track testing, The Stronach Group on Friday unveiled plans to implement new safety and welfare measures at Santa Anita. Trainers will have to request permission from track veterinarians at least 24 hours before sending out a horse for a timed work. The veterinarians are tasked with identifying “at risk” horses based on past performances, workouts, and physical inspection. More veterinarians have been hired to watch all horses as they take to the track during training hours.
To reduce traffic during workouts, Santa Anita is setting aside exclusive training windows for horses who are recording timed moves – the first 15 minutes of training after the main track opens, and after each renovation break.
Also, Santa Anita is establishing a new post to be staffed by an accredited veterinarian, the Director of Equine Welfare, with a broad portfolio. Aside from having an oversight role over “all aspects of equine well-being,” the Director of Equine Welfare will supervise another new entity, the Rapid Response team for injuries. The Director and Rapid Response team are charged with “conducting transparent investigations of all factors involving the injury, as well the communication of their findings to the racing and general public.”
Santa Anita will take a page from a fellow Stronach track, Gulfstream Park, with a “House Rule” mandating that veterinary records accompany a horse through any change of owner or trainer, whether via the claim box or private sale.
Ritvo’s Sunday statement reiterates those safety and welfare protocols: