Horse Racing: Tragedy may await after decision to keep Breeders Cup at Santa Anita

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As I compose this column, I do so with a gamut of emotions which range from sheer anger to utter confusion.

Since late December at Santa Anita, a stunning total of 30 horse have been fatally injured and euthanized as a result. There has been rampant criticism from a wide range of people from the California Horse Racing Board to PETA concerning the continued problems with the track surface.

It was thought that the first wave of fatal breakdowns was caused by the abnormal rain. After a six-week break and numerous attempts to fix the track, the thought process was that everything was squared away When the resumption of the meet came, there were more breakdowns causing the meet closed on June 22.

Following the close of Santa Anita until the fall at least, the California Racing Board in their own infinite wisdom banned Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, citing that four of the 30 breakdowns coming from his barn. Let me try to decipher this as best I can. You are going to ban one trainer who had four breakdowns out of the 30? What about the other 26 breakdowns. I guess those trainers get a free pass. This ruling is the absolute definition of knee-jerk. I just am staggered by how short sighted the California Horse Racing Board’s judgement is.

There was rampant speculation that the Breeders Cup would move this year’s races from Santa Anita to another track, specifically Churchill Downs or Belmont Park. However, the Breeders Cup cow towed to the California Horse Racing Board and decided by a unanimous vote to keep the Cup at Santa Anita. The decision to stay is based on the promise that the track will be fixed by November, and everything will be hunky dory. Well, those aren’t the exact words but the choice to stay does show a little too much confidence that a lingering and serious issue will disappear somehow.

Now let me ask you an easy question. If you have a top class juvenile or any horse in other divisions that use the Breeders Cup to try and cinch a Eclipse Award and know the sheer instability of the track at Santa Anita, would you even bother flying out there to compete? Knowing in the back of your mind that no matter how sound your horse is, the result could be a fatally breakdown? I don’t want to hear that it could happen anywhere at anytime because that rationale certainly does not apply here. The risk level is obviously much higher than anything you would consider normal or acceptable.

I would not even think about going out to Santa Anita Eclipse, awards and acclaim be damned. A horse’s soundness is more important than an Eclipse Award. The other repercussions of this decision by the Breeders Cup committee could and quite frankly should be felt on November 1-2 when the Breeders Cup will be run. By whom you ask? The betting public. I hope that those who are beyond frustrated with what has happened send a loud and clear message by boycotting those 2 days and making Santa Anita feel the economic pinch.

I also want to address PETA (the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), who went full bore at Santa Anita last weekend trying to close the facility permanently. I have always thought of PETA as a group who has a radicalized agenda without reasonable expectations. I’m not ignorant about this sport though. Do I think that horse racing has problems? Absolutely they do, and I am not naive to think otherwise. Yet, thes problems at Santa Anita are not the apocalypse that PETA and others are making it out to be.

If real change is to occur then there is one real solution. The commissioners and higher ups of horse racing, namely the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and other high powered entities with sway in the sport, need to come together and face the problems that plague this beloved sport. It cannot be just airing out problems for the sake of publicity spin. There has to be real effort to make significant changes in drug policy and much better working relationships with casinos which run many tracks.

I have covered this sport for a long time and have been a fan even longer so I really hope that something big happens on the positive side. Being a reactive instead of a proactive society leads to tragedies. If I am being brutally honest, I don’t expect much.

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George Pepis

George Pepis

Horse Racing Analyst

George Pepis provides racing analysis during each Fair Grounds racing season. He also shares commentary and selections for major stakes events and prep races around the country. In the past, George has hosted sports talk programming on WGSO 990am in New Orleans. He has served as both play-by-play and color analyst on Louisiana high school football radio and internet broadcasts.

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