“Foremost among the core values of the Breeders’ Cup are the safety and integrity of the competition, and we hold ourselves, our host sites and our competitors, to the highest standards of both,” …
The 36th Breeders’ Cup, set for Nov. 1-2 at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles, solidified on Thursday as something beyond its customary status as horse racing’s “Super Bowl” or “World Series.” It became officially something of a two-day held breath when the 14-member Breeders’ Cup board of directors unanimously agreed to keep the 14-race event at the storied Santa Anita.
The decision not to relocate, made at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting at its headquarters in Lexington, Ky., figured to throw an unusual focus come autumn upon the international gathering of gifted horses and the humans who own, breed and train them. All will convene at a picturesque track beneath the San Gabriel Mountains that has held the Breeders’ Cup nine times already, beginning in 1986, but also one that just endured a horrid winter and spring with 30 horse deaths, from Psychedelicat on Dec. 30 to American Currency on June 22.
“Foremost among the core values of the Breeders’ Cup are the safety and integrity of the competition, and we hold ourselves, our host sites and our competitors, to the highest standards of both,” Craig Fravel, president and chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup, said in a statement. “It is clear that meaningful and effective reforms and best practices have been implemented in recent months at Santa Anita through the collective efforts of the Stronach Group, the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the California Thoroughbred Trainers and the California Horse Racing Board.
“We fully embrace those reforms and will devote our time and energy in the coming months to further advance those efforts. We look forward to showing the world the best in Thoroughbred racing at one of its finest venues.”
Santa Anita’s recent meet from Dec. 26 to June 23 roiled with a 23-day suspension of racing in March and drew uncommon attention from figures in government such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). The track announced an array of reforms in March, including one involving the use of the drug Lasix, a diuretic given to horses on race days to prevent pulmonary bleeding, and it eventually saw a five-member panel of independent veterinarians and stewards charged with evaluating the racing preparedness of horses. The state legislature this week passed a bill to empower the racing board to immediately suspend a track’s racing license to protect horses and riders, which Newsom signed into law Wednesday.
“Business as usual has resulted in too many horse deaths,” he said in a news release.
One horse died in late December, 10 in January, eight in February, four in March, three in May and four in June as officials and experts scrambled to determine the cause. Amid renewed speculation about the use of drugs and whips, experts such as decorated 83-year-old trainer D. Wayne Lukas joined others in citing the track surface, perhaps altered after California’s relentlessly rainy winter.
Equine officials all over the country descended upon Santa Anita during the rash of horse deaths to evaluate the health of the animals training there and the track’s surface. One executive called the issues “multi-factorial,” but soil experts did not discover anything unusual.
Santa Anita went six weeks without a fatality before mid-May, but seven more horses have died since then.
Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer was banned Monday from the track and all others owned by the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and other major tracks such as Pimlico and Laurel in Maryland and Gulfstream near Miami, after a fourth horse in his stable died.
In its wake and ahead of Thursday’s meeting, speculation centered on whether the event might move to Louisville and to Churchill Downs, also a nine-time host of the Breeders’ Cup. Both Kentucky-based Power Five college football teams, Kentucky and Louisville, have an off Saturday scheduled for Nov. 2. According to the Equine Injury Database, Churchill Downs suffered 2.73 horse deaths per thousand starts in 2018, compared with 2.04 at Santa Anita that year and 1.68 nationally.
“Who could possibly have thought that it was a good idea to move the Breeders’ Cup from a track that is trying to stop the carnage to one with an even more shameful record of fatalities? The Breeders’ Cup board made the right decision,” PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said in a statement. “Now it should disallow trainers with multiple medication violations from all races.”
The Breeders’ Cup’s 14-member board includes nine Kentuckians, one of whom, Antony Beck, runs Lexington’s famed Gainesway Farm some 30 years after his father, the late South African mining magnate Graham Beck, purchased the farm from John R. Gaines, the late pet-food heir and racing titan credited with hatching the concept of the Breeders’ Cup in the early 1980s. Another director is Mike Rogers, who recuses from votes related to the Stronach Group.
As the 2019 Breeders’ Cup takes on this added microscope, a review of news accounts of the previous 35 Breeders’ Cups shows a celebrated history with episodic tragedy. Across the 322 Breeders’ Cup races since the inaugural event in 1984, 10 horses have suffered injuries that led to euthanizing, an 11th when considering Exogenous, who fell on the way to the track in 2001 and died six days later. In the death most widely agonized, champion filly Go For Wand crumpled to the dirt in the Distaff at Belmont Park in 1990, horrifying witnesses on a day that cost three contestants all told. Of the Breeders’ Cup deaths, only one, filly Secret Compass in 2013, occurred at Santa Anita.