ARCADIA, Calif. – It almost seemed like business as usual early Monday morning at Santa Anita, where the main track opened for training for the first time in six days.
Yet even before veteran mare Paddy Jean stepped onto the track at 5 a.m. and became the first horse to gallop or jog on the main oval since it was closed last week, reminders were everywhere that the environment has changed.
Monday mornings typically are quiet, but television crews from ABC and CBS affiliates remained stationed at Clocker’s Corner in the pre-dawn darkness. Santa Anita racing executives, including Tim Ritvo, monitored training track workouts and light exercise on the main oval.
And when the lighting system unexpectedly went off at 5:10 a.m. and stayed dark for more than 10 minutes, the atmosphere became eerie. It was almost fitting. Santa Anita suspended racing last week after the 21st equine fatality, and the spotlight has been on the racetrack since.
Unnoticed by many, one racehorse that was galloping was vanned off the main track early Monday, perhaps during the blackout. The incident was not serious, according to trainer Phil D’Amato, who was in Florida. After speaking with his help, D’Amato said via text that it was his understanding that a pony kicked the horse, who was “comfortable” after returning to his stable.
Even while the racing industry in Southern California remains under intense scrutiny, positive signals emerged Monday. Trainers were encouraged by the condition of the main track, which was open for joggers and gallopers. Meanwhile on the training track, 133 horses posted timed workouts. Those were the first works at Santa Anita since last Tuesday, March 5. Santa Anita announced that day that racing would be suspended indefinitely pending examination of the main track. The track announced over the weekend that racing would resume Friday, March 22.
According to Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, workouts on the main oval should resume later this week.
“We’re getting good reviews” of the main track, Ritvo said. “We’re going to watch everybody come back today. If everything goes good, it could be Wednesday or Thursday.”
Monday’s training-track workouts also were the first since Santa Anita initiated safety protocols that require trainers submit workout requests a day in advance. The idea is to flag potentially high-risk horses. The racing office was flooded with requests for Monday works.
“We got around 150 requests, which was a big surprise,” Ritvo said. “We went through the entire list and identified about 12 [high-risk horses]. We’re looking at long gaps and horses that have not raced [or worked] in a long time.”
Officials contacted trainers of the 12 horses, none were publicly identified, and asked the trainers to postpone those workouts pending further examination.
Horses that worked Monday on the training track included graded stakes winners Next Shares, Caribou Club, and Selcourt. Other notable workers were Campaign, Mucho Unusual, and La Force.
Many believe an unusually wet winter contributed to the alarming increase in the number of equine fatalities. The weather cleared over the past four days, allowing surface expert Dennis Moore to evaluate and condition the surface.
Moore recently rejoined the Santa Anita maintenance team to work with track superintendent Andy LaRocco, whose task this winter was difficult.
“Andy and the crew did a great job taking care of the track,” Moore said. “Nobody could have done anything different than what they were doing. You had storm after storm, so you had no time in between to do anything.”
Although the safety of racing surfaces often is questioned when fatalities spike, Moore contends there are many other factors to consider.
“Fatalities, to me, are multifactorial,” he said. After reviewing data and multiple inspections of the track, Moore said, “Nothing stood out. There was no smoking gun.”
With recent dry weather, and no training on the main track, Moore and LaRocco have restored the surface. This was not possible during periods of continued rain such as this winter, when clay and silt (called fines) that bind surface material are washed to the bottom of the track.
Moore said with rototilling and harrowing, crews have been able to bring the “fines” back up into the racing surface. In a way, it regenerates the surface.
“Right now, the track is like it was in October,” Moore said. “During the fall meet, we did not have a single fatality in the morning.”
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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