More horses needed at Santa Anita

Santa Anita held a rare four-day race week ending on Columbus Day, and the results were concerning if not startling, especially considering the ideal weather conditions.

Like every other track around the country, Santa Anita publishes a condition book listing the races scheduled to be run over a two-week period more than a week ahead of schedule. In the current condition book, Santa Anita was scheduled to run 10 races each day starting Friday Oct. 9 through Monday Oct. 12.

Only nine races could be filled for Friday. Total handle for the Friday card was $6,531,085. There were nine races again on Saturday. Four of those races had five-horse fields, and there was one race with just four horses. Total handle for Saturday was $6,519,254. Nine races filled for Sunday. Included were three races with five horses and one race with four horses. Total handle on Sunday was $5,968,398.

The Columbus Day card Monday included just eight races. There were four races with five horses and a single race with a four-horse field. Total handle on Monday was $4,016,613. 

A total of 40 races were scheduled over the long weekend. Only 35 races filled. There were 11 races with five-horse fields and three races with just four horses. Total handle over the four-day weekend was $23,035,350. By comparison, Belmont Park’s 11-race card on Saturday that included five Stakes races and a mandatory payout in their Empire Six wager had total handle of $19,407,847.

What the four-day week exposed was how low the current race-ready horse population is in Southern California. How did it get this way?

California is a leader when it comes to safety protocols, but having the toughest protocols in the nation also puts California on an uneven playing field and makes it difficult to attract new stables. Many horses impacted by those protocols have been forced to leave the state.

Two major shut downs — one in March 2019 at Santa Anita due to a spike in catastrophic injuries and again in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic — forced California horsemen to look for other options to race. Tracks like Oaklawn Park were able to remain open during the pandemic and California horsemen were very active in Arkansas as a result.

Southern California trainers like Peter Miller, Bob Hess Jr., Doug O’Neill, Jerry Hollendorfer, William E. Morey, Anna Meah and Phil D’Amato set up satellite stables in other states or moved their entire barns altogether. Trainers with smaller stables like Jack Carava and Matt Chew simply retired. 

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What will tracks in California do to try and reverse the declining handle and horse population? Rebuilding the horse population will make for better wagering races, increase handle, and help purses.

Del Mar is being aggressive with their “Ship and Win” purse bonuses. For the Del Mar fall meet that starts on October 31, horses that have not raced in California in the last 12 months will get a $3,000 check for shipping expenses in their first Del Mar start along with a 30 percent purse bonus for non-Stakes races. The hope is to keep those horses in California after they arrive.

Santa Anita is currently building a new turf chute adjacent to the seven-furlong dirt chute. The new turf chute is expected to be operational in time for the winter meet that kicks off Dec. 26 and will allow the racing office to offer a variety of different sprint distances on turf.

These programs will help, but there are other questions that need to be addressed. What happens this winter when it rains at Santa Anita? The Stronach Group track has made it a policy not to race over sealed tracks since reopening from the shut down in 2019.

Other Stronach Group tracks like Gulfstream Park and Gulfstream Park West in Florida and Laurel and Pimlico in Maryland are allowed to race during inclement weather. Understanding the policies that allow those tracks to run and being able to implement them in California could keep horses from leaving.

I am not trying to knock Santa Anita. It is my favorite track in the world. There is nothing like watching horses train as the sun comes up over the San Gabriel mountains. It is where prior to the coronavirus pandemic you could chat with top jockeys and trainers at Clocker’s Corner. It is the most beautiful setting in sports.

But these are issues facing California racing in general. The next steps could determine what the future holds in the state. Owners, horsemen and the betting public will be watching closely hoping decision makers do what is best to put the business of horse racing on the right track.

Lindo Report Play for Gaming Today: Santa Anita Friday, Race 3: That Corey (No. 5). First-time starter is by sire Square Eddie, who specializes in turf sprinters. Juvenile has worked well and catches a modest field for his debut.