John Clay

The Breeders’ Cup has no choice but to move from Santa Anita

There is no such thing as a sure bet in horse racing, except for perhaps this one: If an equine fatality happens during the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 1-2, it would surely be catastrophic for the sport.

So when the Breeders’ Cup board of directors holds its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, it needs to play the odds and move horse racing’s so-called Super Bowl away from the track where 30 horses died while either training or racing from Dec. 26 through June 23.

Churchill Downs in Louisville is the logical re-location choice. The historic facility has held the event nine times, including last year, since its inception in 1984. It’s in the heart of Thoroughbred country. Yet location has nothing to do with it. It’s all about the timing.

I’ve been to Santa Anita to cover a Breeders’ Cup and it’s a wonderful place to hold the event. Just not this time, not this year, not under the current circumstances. Because of the deaths at Santa Anita, horse racing’s critics, including PETA, are putting intense pressure on the sport. It’s a fact of life that equine fatalities are going to happen in racing. But 30 is much too large a number to ignore, or accept.

Remember that the California Horse Racing Board called for Santa Anita to halt racing after the 28th fatality two weeks ago. The track’s owners, The Stronach Group, refused the request, leaving critics to charge it cared more about profits than safety.

Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the CHRB told the New York Times this week, “It was a perfect storm of terrible weather, a dearth of horses — many of them who shouldn’t have been running here. There was a big push to fill races, and some people haven’t been as cautious as they should have, on both sides.”

Just Monday, the California Senate approved a bill that would allow the CHRB to suspend or move race dates without the current 10-day public notice period. The legislation awaits the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsome. And its shows that the state means business.

Not everyone believes abandoning Santa Anita is a good idea, however. Ray Paulick of the Paulick Report argued this week that the decision to move the Breeders’ Cup would be misguided. “This is the time for the Breeders’ Cup to make a statement that it supports the wide-ranging industry reforms initiated at Santa Anita in March,” Paulick wrote, “that it is willing to face the protesters and media eye to eye and say, ‘We are doing what’s right for the horses by holding our championship event here at Santa Anita.’”

That view isn’t without merit. Santa Anita supporters point to measures The Stronach Group has proposed or taken to address the problems, including the ban of Jerry Hollendorfer after the Hall of Fame trainer had a horse go down last weekend, his fourth fatality since the start of the meet.

Yet Los Alamitos and the New York Racing Association both announced Hollendorfer is still welcome to stable and race at their facilities, producing the perception that the industry believes the issue has more to do with California than with the rest of the country.

And perceptions do matter, especially in this modern age of social media and around-the-clock news cycles. A decade or two ago, the fatalities at Santa Anita might have been confined to an industry story as opposed to a national one. Not now.

Suppose the Breeders’ Cup remains at Santa Anita and a horse, just one horse, suffers a fatal injury at the same track where 30 horses perished over a six-month period earlier this year. That might prove fatal for the sport.

The Breeders’ Cup can’t take that chance.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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