At Santa Anita, at Least for One Day, the Racing Goes Off Safely

ARCADIA, Calif. — As the alarming run of thoroughbred fatalities at Santa Anita Park continued last weekend, various parties associated with venerable track began voicing a shared prayerful wish: Can we somehow get through Saturday without another one?

This was no lack of caring about the long-term fate of horses but awareness that a spotlight would be trained on the track for the most dazzling day of the six-month meet. A banquet of stakes races would be offered — seven in all, notably the Santa Anita Derby and two other Grade 1 events.

While the card would quicken the pulses of racing devotees, scrutiny would intensify from elected officials and animal-welfare watchdogs who have lobbied for drastic measures over the death count of 23 horses in a mere three and a half months.

All 11 races were run Saturday without incident, though the jockey Mike Smith unnerved the 30,000 in attendance when he eased up Ms. Bad Behavior early in the fifth. He said he detected no injury but, he added: “I just didn’t like the way she was moving. I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Good health, for the most part, had returned, along with a semblance of predictability across the nation to what had been a chaotic chain of results in prep races for the Kentucky Derby.

At Aqueduct, the favored Tacitus, who had already qualified for the Derby, narrowly captured the Wood Memorial.

At Keeneland, the favored Vekoma handily won the Blue Grass Stakes to secure the needed qualifying points.

And at the Santa Anita Derby, the second betting choice, Roadster, steered by Smith, edged the favored Game Winner.

It was a win-win-win for the trainer Bob Baffert, the California-based trainer of Roadster and Game Winner. Roadster, who required a long layoff after throat surgery to clear blocked airways, had no points in designated Derby prep races. Only a top-two finish wound have earned him passage to Kentucky.

Baffert will saddle both colts at Churchill Downs in Louisville on May 4 as he takes aim at a third Triple Crown in five years.

“At the eighth pole, I knew I was going to win,” he said. “It was just a question of which one.”

Harking back to last year, Smith said: “We knew before he and Game Winner started running that they had an abundance of ability. Bob would be, ‘Which one is better?’ ”

Baffert had no answer on Saturday. “It was a good hard race by both of them,” he said. “That’s what you want. I couldn’t be happier.”

Besides his training duties Baffert has also assumed a role of defending horse racing in his state and elsewhere against those who have pressed for significant reforms, if not a shutdown.

“We didn’t deserve the beatdown,” he said of the critics toward the end of an accident-free afternoon. “I think they judge us a little bit too harshly.”

“You don’t have to burn the house down,” he added, “because some pipes are bad.”

Once the latest four-day race week at Santa Anita concludes on Sunday, attention will turn to the meeting of the state horse racing board on Friday. The meeting is meant to decide how to handle a potential request from the Stronach Group, which owns the track, to shift dates to other California sites.

The Stronach Group has not indicated whether it is weighing that option. About two and a half months remain in the meet. With more fatalities a concern even as the pace of deaths has slowed, speculation abounds that it might consider handing off at least some cards.

Also on Friday jockeys at Santa Anita intend to ride without whips. Their pledge is a striking rejoinder to the ownership’s intent, which has not been enacted yet, to limit the use of crops r to cases in which jockeys deem safety is at stake. The riders, who firmly oppose the rule, maintain that their motive is to provide data on the consequences of whipless racing.

Also, track officials will decide this week on lifting or extending the freeze on using the distinct downhill turf course for races. Popular among Santa Anita patrons, it was the scene of the latest casualty, last Sunday.

Though the footing has not been linked to mishaps, some horsemen acknowledge there is added risk on the sloping route. A patch of dirt bridges two sections of grass, so horses must adjust to both surfaces.

Ownership has also lowered the maximum amount of the common antidiuretic Lasix that horses can ingest, one of a series of actions that critics claim is insufficient.

Heat on the track and its executives was turned up when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, urged in a letter to the state racing board that racing be suspended until an investigation can determine a cause for the spate of deaths. Officials have not suggested a cause aside from abundant rain early in the meet that might have altered the track’s texture.

At some point, the industry must address the status of the Breeders’ Cup, the annual two-day extravaganza in early November that is scheduled for Santa Anita, a frequent site. Another regular host, Churchill Downs, has indicated a willingness to pinch-hit if a region more geographically friendly to the sport is preferred.

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