Landmark race for Santa Anita Park, after recent surge in horse deaths

Posted at 10:35 PM, Apr 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-06 22:36:53-04

(CNN) — Roadster, a 3-year-old colt, won the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, the featured event at the embattled Santa Anita Park, where nearly two dozen horses have died since December.

It was the highlight of the 11-race program at the track, where 23 horses have had to be euthanized after training or racing incidents.

Roadster is trained by hall-of-famer Bob Baffert, who also trained recent Triple Crown winners Justify and American Pharoah.

Ninety-six horses were slated to run Saturday at the park’s flagship Derby Day. The highest-stakes race is a $1,000,000 West Coast steppingstone to qualify for the 2019 Kentucky Derby. Purse winnings for the entire day total $2,750,000.

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries on Saturday.

Six days ago, the 5-year-old colt Arms Runner was euthanized — just two days after the track reopened, following a 24-day suspension of racing. The thoroughbred fell and collided with another horse during the San Simeon Stakes.

The past week’s daily training sessions, and the 16 races held on Thursday and Friday, took place without incident. “We’re back to normal, but there’s a lot of anxiety and apprehension — no question,” Santa Anita Park spokesman Mike Willman said earlier this week.

Saturday, he said more than 3,000 horses have had timed workouts on the track with no issues since March 15.

New safety rules

The Santa Anita Derby is the first high-stakes race held under new safety protocols mandated by the California Horse Racing Board — the state’s independent agency, which regulates race safety and betting.

Jockeys are prohibited from using whips to encourage their horses to move forward, unless the safety of the rider or horse are compromised. The administration of same-day medications — which can often mask the severity of a horse’s injury — are being phased out.

The recent spate of deadly incidents has not deterred thousands of racing fans from lining the stands, and waging bets remotely over satellite.

“It shouldn’t stop people from coming,” said Chris Maurath, who had settled in early for a full day of racing. “It’s a random chance event … you have lulls, and you have spikes … if it continues at this pace, then there’s a real problem, but it hasn’t gotten to that point. It’s sad, nobody wants this to happen.”

The company that owns the track said it is working to improve horse safety.

“The fact that horses running in America are five times more likely to suffer catastrophic injury than horses running in international venues is unacceptable and must immediately change,” the Stronach Group said.

It said reforms will move Stronach tracks to be more inline with the regulations of the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities.

‘It’s been tough,’ worker says

The supportive buzz in the stands is encouraging to those working on the ground.

“It’s been tough,” said 85-year-old Huey Barnes. Under his watchful eye, thousands of horses have safely come through the starting gate at Santa Anita Park. The octogenarian is an assistant starter, who began his career at the race track when he was a teenager.

“People are talking about this industry … and I’ve been with it ever since I was a kid. It’s given everything I have … it got my kids through college,” he said.

As each race ticks by, dozens of spectators continue filing in. In 2018, over 39,000 fans attended the races and festivities surrounding the Santa Anita Derby, which includes a 5k race and a spring carnival.

“We want to support the sport, we love it,” said Beth Gerber. “We love betting on those horses, and the thrill of it. We’re not hard-core betters, but it’s a great past time.”

After the Derby, Baffert said it was comforting to see a lot of fans — more than 30,000 — at the track.

“The fans, despite what they’ve reading, they showed up,” he said. “They know at the end of the day we love our horses. We wake up worrying about them, we go to sleep worrying about them. To me, that’s what made this a great day.”

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