It’s 8:30 a.m. at Clockers’ Corner, the bustling coffee spot at the top of the stretch at Santa Anita Park, where jockeys and trainers, agents, owners and racing fans gather to watch the morning workouts.
Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer here, sits in the stands nearby, fielding questions from a reporter. But her eyes never leave the track. She scans the thoroughbreds galloping below, looking for bobbing heads or uneven hip action – any hints of trouble.
She’s not the only one watching anxiously. Santa Anita, northeast of Los Angeles, is one of the world’s most beautiful and storied racetracks. It’s home to legends in racing, from John Henry to American Pharoah, who made history in 2015 as the first Triple Crown winner in nearly four decades. And it’s having a terrible year. Twenty-nine horses have died racing or in training at Santa Anita since late December, collapsed from a heart attack or euthanized after broken legs or shoulder or pelvic injuries.
That’s not even a particularly high number for the track. Fifty-four horses died racing or training here in 2017; 59 in 2012. But a stunning 23 deaths in the first few months of 2019 – among them the famed Battle of Midway, winner of the Breeders’ Cup dirt mile, who died in training, and Princess Lili B, who broke her legs during training (captured, in horrific detail, by a local TV station filming at the time) – brought a blast of media attention and calls for the track to shut down.
It did close for much of March to regroup and check the track’s surface. Two days after it reopened, another horse died: Arms Runner, a five-year-old gelding, injured his right front leg in a race, fell and was euthanized. At least three more horses have died this month. In an unprecedented move, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), the state regulator, called in early June for the track to suspend operations, as did California’s Governor Gavin Newsom. But the CHRB does not have the power to shut down a track without a public meeting with 10 days notice, and Santa Anita refused to stop races. It remains open, controversially; Sunday is the last day of racing before a summer break.
After that, says Dr. Benson, “we’re going to look at everything. ... And if there is anything that we can do better that will make horses safer, it is on the table, open for discussion. We want this to be the safest racetrack in the world, not just America, for horses,” she adds, before heading down to her next interview with a TV crew.
There is a lot at stake – thousands of local jobs, the future of the sport at one of America’s most hallowed tracks, and perhaps more than that. The racing industry has been struggling from declining attendance, attacks by animal rights activists and an increase in scrutiny of the toll it takes on the horses. Last year, 493 horses died while racing at North American racetracks, according to data from the Jockey Club – an average of about 10 fatalities per week. Between 2009 and last year, 6,134 horses suffered fatal injuries. (Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack, site of the Queen’s Plate next weekend, has a fatality rate lower then the Jockey Club’s average; even so, 108 horses have died in races over the past decade.) And these data underestimate the toll, as not all tracks report fatalities, and the national numbers don’t include deaths in morning training.
Race fatalities are a long-standing part of the centuries-old sport – but many say horse racing is now in crisis, with Santa Anita at the epicentre. The Globe and Mail spent a week speaking with dozens of trainers, owners, jockeys, exercise riders, bettors, company officials and ground staff about the track, along with animal welfare advocates and area politicians. “We’re all on pins and needles because we don’t want to see it happen again,” said Bob Baffert, the renowned trainer of two Triple-Crown winners and five Kentucky Derby winners, in an hour-long interview at his stables by the track. “We’re under a magnifying glass right now … everyone’s nervous.”
No one knows this better than Belinda Stronach, president and chair of The Stronach Group (TSG), which owns Santa Anita and six other iconic racetracks, including Gulfstream near Miami and Pimlico in Baltimore, home of the Preakness. Ms. Stronach is arguably the second-most prominent Canadian in the world of horse racing; the first, of course, would be her father, Frank Stronach. The family has made large investments in the sport, starting in the early 1960s; the Stronachs now find themselves at the centre of its fight for survival.
And that fight comes as father and daughter are locked in a bitter legal battle over an estimated $1.2-billion fortune, much of which is tied up in horse racing and related gambling and real estate businesses. Mr. Stronach, the 86-year-old founder of auto-parts company Magna International Inc., handed the reins of the family company to his now-53-year-old daughter five years ago in order to run for political office in his native Austria. After his political career fizzled, Mr. Stronach turned his attention to new business ambitions, including changing the way Americans eat by acquiring a massive grass-feed beef ranch in central Florida and launching a national grocery and restaurant chain.
The ventures lost vast sums of money, and Ms. Stronach cut off most funding for her father’s projects in 2016, claiming the red ink ran to more than $800-million. They’ve been fighting for control of TSG ever since.
In this family feud, the death of a horse becomes a club Frank Stronach uses to pound away at his daughter’s credibility. At a press conference near Santa Anita in April and in subsequent media interviews, Mr. Stronach linked race course fatalities to poor management at TSG and said his daughter and her perceived allies, such as TSG chief executive Alon Ossip, are intent on selling the race tracks, which could be worth billions of dollars to real estate developers. With cameras rolling, Mr. Stronach said: “They are making a mess. It seems to me they have done it on purpose there, to kill racing.”
Ms. Stronach has responded with a notice of libel from her lawyers, asking her father for an “unequivocal apology and retraction,” for alleging that she “deliberately, negligently or otherwise caused the horse fatalities at Santa Anita.” In court filings and in conversation, Ms. Stronach says Mr. Ossip, a long-time adviser to her father, stepped back from an active role at the family company in 2017 at Frank Stronach’s request and has no input on corporate decisions.
Undaunted, Mr. Stronach emerged Thursday in California at a CHRB meeting to again complain about being frozen out of the family business, and make his case for safer race tracks. He told the crowd: “We have to prove to the public that horsemen do care for the horses.” Mr. Stronach’s vision of the future would see the racetracks placed in a trust, controlled by horse owners and trainers, while TSG would retain and develop any land that wasn’t needed for racing. The ponies would be cared for under what the former Magna CEO calls a Racing Charter of Rights that guarantees horses eight weeks of vacation a year, plus a retirement funded by a setting aside a small percentage of every bet. (Through his lawyers, Mr. Stronach declined to comment for this story.) Racing is as much, or more, of Frank Stronach’s legacy as auto parts are, and friends say he is deeply hurt by being excluded from any formal role in a sport he cherishes.
But Ms. Stronach is running TSG, and has spent much of the past three months in California, dealing with the problems at Santa Anita. In a 90-minute interview with The Globe and Mail, she laid out a series of safety initiatives that TSG is championing, in conjunction with trainers, jockeys, breeders, rival track owners and state and federal governments. “Historic change is taking place in racing," she said. She also defended her decision to keep the track open through this weekend, the end of the spring season. “If we closed the track last week, I believe it would have been the beginning of the end of horse racing in California,” she said.
And she talked about plans to rejuvenate the business, to modernize the experience of a day at the races and make it relevant to audiences that have so many other ways to spend their entertainment dollar. TSG, she said, is committed to horse racing. “I have looked my father in the eye, on numerous occasions, and said ‘Dad, we are not selling the race tracks.’”
The setting for Santa Anita Park is undeniably stunning. The palm-studded San Gabriel Mountains provide a sweeping panorama for the 85-year-old track. It’s steeped in history; in 1940, Seabiscuit won the Santa Anita Handicap; in 2009, Zenyatta became the first mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich and Spencer Tracy turned up to watch races here. (Though it was not all glamour and celebration; in 1942, it was a temporary detention camp for 19,000 Japanese Americans on their way to internment camps, housing thousands of people in converted horse stalls.)
The Art Deco façade, massive grandstand and vast parking lots were built for a bygone era; attendance has dwindled from peaks of 80,000 or more to 10,000 on average this season, as many who play the horses now place their bets remotely. (Ninety per cent of the money wagered on Santa Anita races is bet off-site.) Even on a lovely Friday afternoon, with free admission and $2 beer, the stands are nearly empty.
Headlines of horse deaths and protesters outside the gates are giving potential patrons more reasons to stay away. Hector Molina sits in the stands on a Friday afternoon, some betting chits in hand. Asked if he’s a regular, he proudly pulls out his official licence, showing he’s a former exercise rider – has been since he was an eight-year-old boy in Mendoza, Argentina. Now 80, he still comes to the track most days to watch. He thinks there are several factors at play in the horse deaths: “Many new people are coming, they gallop the horse and don’t understand when its foot is sore,” he says.
Theories abound for why so many horses have died. Initially it was thought that unusually heavy rains were affecting the surface of the dirt track. But the rain stopped, and the horses kept dying. Some blamed the practice of running horses with pre-existing medical conditions, the overuse of medication that masks pain, trainers who forced a sore horse to run, track management geared at maximizing profits, and horses made to run year round.
Some think it’s bad luck, a statistical anomaly, a curse on the track; animal rights advocates say it’s just a normal, hidden part of racing.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has started an investigation into the horse deaths. It will examine whether “unlawful conduct or conditions” have affected the safety of horses at the track; the investigation is ongoing, and the DA’s office declined to comment for this story. The CHRB is also investigating.
The deaths have raised questions about who is responsible for horse safety, from the trainers and owners to the race-track operators and state racing regulators. Outside oversight is scant, and rules and transparency differ from state to state.
Senator Dianne Feinstein noted this month that other countries have national standards on medication use, and fewer fatalities. “We don’t accept that there will be athlete fatalities in other sports; it should be no different for horse racing.” Governor Gavin Newsom said last week he is troubled by the horse deaths and that “enough is enough.”
About 1,800 horses run at Santa Anita over the course of the season, and more than 1,200 people work at the track. Spend a week at Clockers’ Corner, and you’ll hear the same message, from jockeys and exercise riders to grooms, hot walkers, trainers and vets: We love the horses. We care for our horses. The do-gooder animal rights people have no clue about this sport. Thousands of jobs are at stake. Proportionately, few horses break down, although inevitably, some will. And a lot of other sports have serious injuries too – look at basketball’s Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Do we close down the National Football League because of concussions? (Though we don’t euthanize injured football players.)
“As trainers ... we’ve learned from this, and we need to do a better job of policing ourselves,” Bob Baffert says. “If you have a horse that doesn’t look 100 per cent, don’t even take the chance of sending them out there.”
Thoroughbreds weigh 500 kilograms, and run 55-65 kilometres an hour on spindly legs with ankles that are the same size as humans’. Mr. Baffert says the breed has changed, becoming more fragile, with more speed. Other horses get worn out on the deeper dirt, he said. “We lose these horses and we mourn. There’s nothing worse, for the workers that work with them. When that horse doesn’t come back to that stall, it’s a very sad situation.”
Of the 29 fatalities at Santa Anita so far this season, three horses have died under one trainer – Jerry Hollendorfer. The Globe contacted Mr. Hollendorfer by phone and asked whether he thought any of those deaths were preventable. “That’s an unanswerable question…my barn has complied with every single thing they’ve asked us to do,” he said, before hanging up.
“It’s been an educational experience for everyone involved in horses,” Mr. Baffert says. “For jockeys, trainers, trackmen, I think a lot of good is going to come out of this.”
Belinda Stronach knows how it feels to watch a vibrant horse like Princess Lili B stumble and fall. It was part of her childhood experience when her parents took her to the races on weekends. Looking back, Ms. Stronach says, “I didn’t enjoy my time at the track as a young person, especially when I witnessed a breakdown or catastrophic injury. That really turned me off the sport.”
She says attracting new fans to the track means eliminating, or at least cutting down, on injuries to horses, and making the welfare of animals a priority. “We have to represent the values of our customers,” says Ms. Stronach. “Those customers don’t want to see horses being whipped. And they don’t want to see horses being drugged to run.”
Before the racing season began at Santa Anita, TSG introduced a number of health-related reforms. More steps were taken after fatalities mounted. The company, working with owners and trainers, rolled out more stringent regulations around the use of medication. For example, it is commonplace to give North American horses a diuretic drug called Lasix in an attempt to improve performance. But the medication is banned in Europe. New rules cut the limit on Lasix dosages by half, and Santa Anita plans to phase out the drug next year.
TSG brought more vets to the track during training and races -- up to four vets now monitor daily workouts, and they have the power to scratch horses and flag thoroughbreds for additional monitoring. The approach to triage was revisited, to ensure rehab was the first priority, as opposed to euthanizing an injured horse. TSG also added PET diagnostic equipment - a horse’s version of an MRI machine - to X-rays and ultrasound equipment at Santa Anita, to help detect pre-existing conditions. “The goal is to making California racing the best and the safest in the world,” says Ms. Stronach. “Part of that goal is that no horse will be racing while on medication, or training with pain-masking drugs.”
Santa Anita has also reduced the jockey’s use of the riding crop. Jockeys are no longer allowed to raise the crop above their shoulder when they whip the horse. And they are pulling in outside experts to monitor the condition of tracks and establishing national databases to track a horse’s health, no matter where it races.
The measures TSG have taken have won praise from a surprising source: The animal advocates at PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “The Stronach Group has decided they’re going to – finally – revolutionize how racing is conducted in the United States. I’ve certainly had my criticisms of them over this issue in the last three months, but they have made more significant changes in racing than anybody in two generations,” said Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s senior vice president, based in northern California.
She says horse racing is experiencing “a crisis like I’ve never seen before," and thinks a lack of uniform regulations across jurisdictions is one of the problems. Ms. Guillermo says PETA still opposes the use of animals for sport. “But we’re also very practical. And even though racing is at a crisis point, it isn’t going away tomorrow. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry in this country. There are many jobs involved. So we feel a very strong obligation to make it as safe as possible.”
Others simply don’t think it can be fixed at all. “Horse racing has been given cover under the banner of sport since the beginning,” said Patrick Battuello, founder of Horseracing Wrongs, a group seeking to end horse racing in the U.S. “In fact, it’s nothing more than animal exploitation, animal cruelty and animal killing, no different than Ringling Bros, Seaworld, and greyhound racing, all of which are either gone or are in the process of going.”
For Ms. Stronach, making horse racing safer is central to her campaign to make it a sexier – and more lucrative – sport. TSG’s makeover of the business started with the grandstands. After subsisting on “crappy hotdogs” while visiting tracks as a child, Ms. Stronach turned up the heat in Stronach kitchens by hiring away chefs and food and beverage executives from the Four Seasons hotel chain and Las Vegas resorts. Stealing a page from music festivals such as Coachella, TSG began staging concerts and video game tournaments as a backdrop to races, with an emphasis on acts that appeal to millennial audiences. At a recent event at Pimlico in Baltimore, the headliners were electronic music producers Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki. At Gulfstream, singers Post Malone and Pharrell Williams joined Ms. Stronach to perform and watch the ponies. Santa Anita hosted its first eSports tournament in November, in partnership with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Behind the scenes, TSG built a media network that puts horse races – at its own tracks and rival circuits – on TV screens in casinos and off-track betting facilities. The company also rolled out technology to allow wagering on races from any location, including a cell phone. The size of the crowd at a TSG track becomes less important if gamblers can bet on the race from anywhere in the world. Ms. Stronach points out TSG-owned secure gambling platforms were set up ahead of a U.S. government move last year to relax gambling laws. She believes that TSG will benefit from what is expected to be a dramatic increase in wagering on sports such as football, basketball and baseball.
Over the past five years, TSG’s revenues from racing and gaming have nearly doubled, to US$1.1-billion, according to court documents filed in the Stronach family lawsuit. Ms. Stronach predicts sales could double again in the next five years, saying: “We are just getting started.” TSG also nearly doubled its market share in U.S. race track betting since 2013. The company now accounts for 28 per cent of all legal wagering.
Profit margins on the existing business are modest, though. One source told The Globe and Mail the business makes about US$75-million to US$80-million. A bigger business opportunity lies in making better use of the land. At Santa Anita, says Ms. Stronach, racing is central to the company’s “live, work and play” approach to developing its real estate. Over time, Santa Anita and other TSG tracks will see their vast parking lots and aging grandstands updated with hotels, casinos, stores and homes, she said. For example, Gulfsteam executives recently hired urban planning firm DPZ Partners to launch a renovation of the Miami property that could include a rail-side luxury hotel and a pedestrian tunnel that would transform the green space in the middle of the track into a public park.
Caught in the middle of all this uncertainty about the fate of the Stronachs’ assets and the future of the sport are the workers, largely Latino, whose livelihoods depend on the track. On Wednesday, a group of them gathered in a prayer circle by the Seabiscuit statue, to hold hands and pray for their jobs and the horses and the track.
“We lift up everybody that’s involved with Santa Anita racetrack... Lord, there’s been a lot of negativisms said about this place, but Lord, a lot of people really don’t know the inside,” said Pastor Eli Hernandez, chaplain of Santa Anita race track.
On Thursday, dozens of low-wage workers and their families gathered at the stands for a first-ever press conference, posters in hand. “If Santa Anita were to close, I wouldn’t have a place to go. The experience that I have is not transferable to other jobs,” said Dagoberto Lopez, who has worked as a groom for 35 years and whose job helps support his three children. As for the horses, “I feel like the horses under my care are like my family; I take care of them as if they were my children.”
Some still fear the whole track will be shuttered and redeveloped. April Verlato, the mayor of the town of Arcadia, (pop. 58,000), where the track is located, says the grandstand and façade are of historic significance to the state of California, suggesting there would be numerous hurdles to tearing it down. “It would be very difficult.”
Zoning changes are possible, subject to council approval, to allow for development in the perimeter of the park, she says, indicating that – generally for land of that size - residential development would hypothetically be most profitable.
The land on which Santa Anita sits is vast, and valuable. House prices have soared in the past decade, driven by wealthy Asian buyers who are investing in real estate as a safe haven in the area, said Kevin Kwan, senior vice president at Century 21 in Arcadia, where the track is situated.
“In Los Angeles, you don’t see that big [of an area] of usable land here, besides the other old race track, which they turned into a football stadium,” he said. Mr Kwan estimates the Santa Anita site is worth at least a billion dollars.
As for the mayor, she’s worried about the impact on jobs, particularly among vulnerable workers, many of them immigrants, should the track close. “People have this perception that everybody at the track is rich, they’re all owners, they’re all jockeys, they’re celebrities," Ms. Verlato says. "But there are a lot of low-income workers… I’m concerned for them.”
Santa Anita finishes its season this weekend, hosting nine races on Friday, then 10 each on Saturday and Sunday. More than 200 horses are expected to compete. Ahead of a trip back to California from Toronto, Ms. Stronach said the horse racing industry has done a great deal to make the sport safer, but more reforms are needed. She says: “We need to raise our standards as an industry, with horse welfare at the centre of that movement. Otherwise, I don’t want to be part of it.”
On Saturday, Mr. Hollendorfer was banned by the ownership of Santa Anita after a fourth horse from his stable died — and the 30th overall — at the Southern California track. The Stronch Group said in a statement that Mr. Hollendorfer “is no longer welcome to stable, race or train his horses at any of our facilities.”
On the recommendation of a special panel convened to review horses’ medical, training and racing history, the track’s stewards scratched four horses trained by Mr. Hollendorfer that were to run Saturday and Sunday.
A 4-year-old gelding trained by Hollendorfer was injured Saturday while exercising on the training track and was euthanized. It was the 30th death since the racing season began on Dec. 26.
After Sunday’s last races, Santa Anita will shut down for the summer. It will reopen in September, when the days get cooler. Most of the horses will be loaded into trailers after this weekend and will head off to other tracks, including California sites such as Los Alamitos and Del Mar. They’ll keep running.
— With a report from the Associated Press
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