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Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill, center, holds a sign during a rally in support of horse racing and its workers outside the main gate at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.The Canadian Press

Buoyed by the presence of two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill, about 50 workers and supporters of horse racing rallied outside Santa Anita’s main entrance Saturday.

They toted signs expressing their love of horses and support for the jobs and lifestyle the industry provides in California. Passing motorists on busy Huntington Drive honked and waved in support.

Protesters have trod the same ground in recent months to criticize the deaths of 32 horses at the track since December and urge that the sport be abolished. However, none of them was among the pro-racing crowd at the rally, where a five-piece band played and O’Neill delivered tacos for lunch.

“Just want to be a voice of how proud we are of our horses and our jobs and our lives,” said O’Neill, who trained Kentucky Derby winners I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist in 2016. “Trainers, grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders, we’ve chose this as our career. It’s very important to keep our voice very much alive and at the forefront.”

O’Neill said he expects more such rallies or as he called them “celebrations.”

“There’s so many workers both frontside and backside that just feel paralyzed,” he said. “Having these kind of celebrations where we can all talk together and be with each other and really show that we are truly the backbone of the business, this is the reality, the love, the passion.”

O’Neill and others holding signs expressed dismay that protesters have been heard more loudly than those who participate daily in the industry.

“We know what our issues are,” said Christine Sanchez of Lake Forest, who has owned racehorses and is now a breeder. “We’re not just sitting back.”

James Corral, a retired jockey who rode 11 years on the Southern California circuit, said he wishes the protesters would better educate themselves on the issues.

“I would like them to know a lot more before they announce and promote,” he said.

Dallas Keen, a 62-year-old trainer who has been involved in racing for most of his life, said he supports the reforms instituted by The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita.

“People are being extra cautious now as maybe they weren’t before,” he said. “These horses get the best life any animal could have.”

O’Neill said he believes reforms involving medication, veterinary records, and training have created positive results.

“I’ve been doing this over 30 years and I’ve never seen one thing of animal abuse,” he said. “If there was an accidental fatality due to abuse, that’s one thing. We got hardworking people that have chosen to care for horses for their livelihood and we’re getting hit over the head. It doesn’t add up to me.”

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