Billy Reed: Breeders’ Cup takes huge gamble with Santa Anita decision

Billy Reed: Breeders’ Cup takes huge gamble with Santa Anita decision
A lot of knowledgeable thoroughbred racing experts thought it was a foregone conclusion that the Breeders’ Cup board would move this year’s event from Santa Anita to another site, most likely Churchill Downs.
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) – A lot of knowledgeable thoroughbred racing experts thought it was a foregone conclusion that the Breeders’ Cup board would move this year’s event from Santa Anita to another site, most likely Churchill Downs.

That was because of the 30 horses that have died on the Santa Anita track, either in races or training, since December of last year. Those tragedies gave animal rights’ groups the ammunition they needed to call for an end to horse racing in California.

So rather than give international TV an opportunity to show the protests and demonstrations that surely will be part of the event at Santa Anita in November, rather than risk a catastrophic breakdown that might seal the sport’s death in California, it seemed prudent to some to simply move the event.

But that also would have been a tacit admission that there was, indeed, something uniquely wrong at Santa Anita, one of the sport’s most iconic tracks for a century. It could have been the first domino to fall in the ultimate demise of the sport in this country.

So the Breeders’ Cup board decided to take the biggest gamble in the event’s 35-year history. It is betting on Santa Anita and all the horsemen who work there. Whether it’s a good bet is as hard to see as the San Gabriel mountains on a foggy day at the track.

In the ensuing months, the decision will be hammered by commentators both in and out of the sport. The industry has drawn a line in the sand at Santa Anita. The naysayers already are screaming that the sport is taking a needless risk.

Trainer Bob Baffert poses in the Winner's Circle after his Roadster stormed to victory in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, 2019. (Source: John P. Wise/WAVE 3 News)
Trainer Bob Baffert poses in the Winner's Circle after his Roadster stormed to victory in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, 2019. (Source: John P. Wise/WAVE 3 News)

But Bob Baffert, the California-based mega-trainer who has won the Triple Crown twice in the last four years, came down hard on the side of the Breeders’ Cup board’s decision.

“We had something happen that nobody was prepared for (the 30 deaths), and it happened so fast,” Baffert told BloodHorse.com. “I believe having the Breeders'' Cup will bring back the normalcy that California needs, and I’m glad the Breeders’ Cup felt that way. Santa Anita is very important for the industry to survive and stay healthy.”

As a precautionary measure, it is important that between now and Nov. 1, the first of the two-day Breeders’ Cup racing cards, the Breeders’ Cup and Santa Anita orchestrates the most transparent and comprehensive public-relations campaign in the sport’s history.

A bevy of experts on racetrack safety and medication issues should be employed to make sure the public is made fully aware of everything being done to protect the horses.

Beyond that, the Jockeys Guild needs to make it clear to all riders that recklessness will be punished harshly, and trainers must be advised that any horse with even a hint of a physical problem will not be allowed to run.

Most horsemen were shocked recently when Hall-of-Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, long a pillar of California racing, was suspended indefinitely. He trained four of the 30 horses who have broken down at Santa Anita.

If that was intended to send a message to horsemen – and it was – it also started another controversy. A California horsemen’s group stood behind Hollendorfer, and the New York Racing Association said his 100-horse stable would be welcome at Saratoga and Belmont Park.

It’s the precarious nature of the sport that despite every possible precaution, there still could be a catastrophic breakdown. Thoroughbreds run on very thin front legs and ankles. Nevertheless, racing is the only thing they’re bred to do. The breed would become extinct if racing were outlawed.

Overall, the Breeders’ Cup record for putting on accident-free programs is good, and that applies to all nine of the previous events held at Santa Anita. Still, when a catastrophic accident happens, it is magnified by the size of the media covering the event and all the fans who are watching – and betting -- around the world.

So the dice have been cast, and the Breeders’ Cup board’s decision will be a topic of debate, controversy, and speculation until late on the evening of Nov. 2, when the Breeders’ Cup Classic will end this year’s series of championship races.

It’s probably not fair that the Breeders’ Cup will be a litmus test for the future of thoroughbred racing, So many things can go wrong that are nobody’s fault. Yet that’s the way it is, and everybody who loves the sport can only hope the racing gods smile kindly on Santa Anita on Nov. 1 and 2.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter and regular contributor of sports columns to WAVE3.com. Contact him at billyreedcolumns@gmail.com.

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