Sidelines with John Clay

The Breeders’ Cup is staying at Santa Anita, so hold your breath

So they’re rolling the dice.

The Thursday decision by the Breeders’ Cup Board of Directors to keep the 2019 event at Santa Anita wasn’t entirely unexpected. After all, we are just a little more than four months away from the scheduled Nov. 1-2 dates for the so-called Super Bowl of Thoroughbred racing in Southern California. Plans have been made. Hotel rooms and flights booked. Switching venues would have been a logistical headache.

Still, as I argued in my recent column, holding the event at a venue in which 30 equine fatalities were suffered in a six-month period, bringing unwanted publicity and scrutiny to the sport, is one inherent with risks. The general public will undoubtedly be watching. What if another horse goes down during the two days of premiere racing with some of the best racehorses in the world?

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, argued that it has taken the necessary steps to make the track a safer place to race. And the Breeders’ Cup decision Thursday showed support for those steps.

“Foremost among the core values of the Breeders’ Cup are the safety and integrity of the competition, and we hold ourselves, our host sites and our competitors to the highest standards of both,” Craig Fravel, president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, said in a news release. “It is clear that meaningful and effective reforms and best practices have been implemented in recent months at Santa Anita through the collective efforts of The Stronach Group, the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the California Thoroughbred Trainers, and the California Horse Racing Board. We fully embrace those reforms and will devote our time and energy in the coming months to further advance those efforts. We look forward to showing the world the best in Thoroughbred racing at one of its finest venues.”

In other words, the committee is committed to proving that Santa Anita is a safe place to race, despite the data of the past six months.

That was part of the case made by Ray Paulick on the Paulick Report website this week when Ray wrote the industry should be “willing to face the protesters and media eye to eye and say, “we are doing what’s right for the horses” and keep the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita rather than a switch to Churchill Downs.

“These are challenging and difficult times for the Thoroughbred industry, and not just in Southern California,” Paulick wrote. “Many in the general public who knew nothing about racing are now keenly aware of just how dangerous this sport can be for its equine and human athletes. They are demanding that racing do all it can to make the sport as safe as possible.

“California’s Thoroughbred industry stakeholders have done exactly that, in many cases tossing aside self interests in hopes of ensuring the sport has a viable future — in California and elsewhere — in a changing society. Now is the time to support California’s Thoroughbred racing industry, not abandon it.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a statement supporting the Breeders’ Cup decision, citing Churchill Downs’ poor record of horse safety.

“Who could possibly have thought that it was a good idea to move the Breeders’ Cup from a track that is trying to stop the carnage to one with an even more shameful record of fatalities?” said PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo. “The Breeders’ Cup board made the right decision. Now, it should disallow trainers with multiple medication violations from all races.”

The NTRA also backed the Breeders’ Cup decision.

“The NTRA fully supports the decision of the Breeders’ Cup Board of Directors to affirm its commitment to host the 2019 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park on November 1-2,” Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive officer, said in a release. “California regulators, racetrack operators, owners, and horsemen have worked together to institute significant and effective reforms and we will lend our assistance in all capacities to ensure this year’s two-day event is a rousing success.”

If this year’s Breeders’ Cup goes off without incident at Santa Anita, it will be a tremendous win for the industry. If it does not, however, it could be a catastrophic loss. If you’re a horse racing fan, you hold your breath and hope for the best.

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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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