Oaklawn to the rescue for Derby

Oaklawn to the rescue for Derby

March 13, 2019 3:00 AM
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The indefinite suspension of racing at Santa Anita last week left California trainers Bob Baffert, Richard Mandella, Jerry Hollendorfer, Keith Desormeaux, and Doug O’Neill in scramble mode looking for options and key Kentucky Derby qualifying points for their three-year-olds after the $500,000 Grade II San Felipe Stakes to be run at Santa Anita was first postponed and ultimately cancelled.

In stepped Oaklawn Park to help.

Shortly after the Santa Anita announcement, the Oaklawn Jockey Club announced they stood ready to split the $1 million Grade II Rebel Stakes set for this Saturday into two divisions, each worth $750,000. Splitting into two divisions would require a minimum of 20 entries for the Rebel Stakes.

Oaklawn president Louis Cella said in a press release: “From a financial standpoint, splitting the race makes no sense whatsoever.  If we split it, it will be strictly on the basis of sportsmanship and what is best for the sport and best for the top three-year-olds trying to get to the Kentucky Derby.”

The California trainers are expected to jump at the opportunity, with Baffert’s top guns Game Winner and Improbable, Mandella’s Omaha Beach and Extra Hope, Hollendorfer’s Gunmetal Gray and Galilean, Desormeaux’s Sueno and Easy Shot, and O’Neill’s Parsimony all likely to be in the entry box on Wednesday morning.

The local contingent figures to include Long Range Toddy, Jersey Agenda, Laughing Fox and Market King. Our Braintrust was a private purchase in January and was beaten just a neck in the Grade III Withers in his first start for his new connections. He is a likely starter, too.

If the race is split, it will be the first time in American racing history for a million-dollar race to be split and run in two divisions. Because of the change in purse from $1 million to $750,000 for each division, the Kentucky Derby points will be adjusted. Instead of the 50-20-10-5 point schedule, the points will be changed to a 37.5-15-7.5-3.75 distribution to the first four finishers in each division.

Oaklawn also announced that horses from the same barn will be placed into separate divisions, which could be a big help to Baffert’s 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Eclipse Award champion Game Winner and his Grade I winning stablemate Improbable as they make their respective three-year-old debuts.

Santa Anita update 

It was Chamber of Commerce weather Saturday in Arcadia for what was supposed to be Santa Anita Handicap Day, but instead there was no racing as track renovations continued.

If everything goes as hoped, workouts could resume on the Santa Anita main track as soon as Wednesday. The projected return to live racing is Friday March 22.

The training track was reopened late last week, and with Monday’s first scheduled works came some new protocols that are being called by Santa Anita the “new normal.”

Those procedures include:

• A trainer must now fill out and send “Workout Request Forms” to the racing office by noon the day before they plan to work any horse.

The plan will allow Santa Anita veterinarians to identify horses that may require a pre-workout examination, such as horses who have not raced for a prolonged period of time.

Of the 150 workout applications for the training track on Monday, Santa Anita flagged 12 requests and asked those trainers to refrain from working those horses until a later date. Everyone obliged.

• The track has hired veterinarians to observe horses during morning training hours.

• The first 15 minutes after renovation breaks will be reserved for horses doing timed workouts.

• The Stronach Group will create a new job entitled Director of Equine Welfare for a veterinarian who will oversee equine safety, will be in charge of investigations of injuries and will handle reporting information to the public.

• Santa Anita plans to enact a house rule for claimed horses allowing veterinary records to transfer from the previous connections to the new connections.

These are proactive steps that will hopefully have a positive impact on the racing population. But absent from the list of changes were some decisions by Santa Anita management that may need to be addressed in order to achieve the additional safety goals.

Management decisions that should be reviewed include:

• Santa Anita has made larger field sizes and more races per day a priority.  After all, more races and bigger field sizes drive handle.  

The goal is commendable, but there are a finite number of horses based in Southern California, unlike Florida when horses ship down from New York for the winter. The local horse population may not be able to handle the added racing.

• More starts per stall has been a major part of the agenda.  Santa Anita has been very clear it is “not a training center” and horses stabled there are expected to participate in the racing program.  

Part of the “incentive to race” have been repeated references to stall allotments for future meets. Those future stall allotments could be based in part on a trainer’s starts per stall numbers.

• More and cheaper quality turf racing.  

One way to achieve the larger field sizes are to run cheaper races. Maiden Claiming and restricted claiming races are now a regular part of the turf program.  

The addition of five-furlong turf sprints have put additional stress on the condition of the turf course. The current unscheduled break in racing will help the turf course rebound from the added use, but unlike tracks like Saratoga and Belmont Park, there is just one turf course at Santa Anita and it is unproven as to just how much turf racing is too much.  

Let’s hope the new protocol and track renovations achieve the desired results. The rest of the horse racing industry and many outside of the racing industry will be watching closely.  

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