Santa Anita makes bold but risky bet after another horse dies

Updated March 14, 2019 - 6:09 pm

Another horse died at Santa Anita Park during training early Thursday — the 22nd death since the track opened Dec. 26. But this time the headline shouldn’t be focused on the death of the 3-year-old maiden filly Princess Lili B and the mysterious mounting body count at the historic Southern California racetrack.

That’s because management with The Stronach Group announced hours later that it will eliminate administration of race-day medication at both California tracks it owns — Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in the Bay Area — and institute other new safety measures, including “a substantial investment in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.” It also said that it will study jockeys’ use of riding crops, saying the time has come to ensure that they are only used “as a corrective safety measure.”

The only legal race-day medication in California and most other racing jurisdictions is furosemide, more commonly known by its trade name, Lasix. It’s used to reduce bleeding in the lungs and air passages of thoroughbreds, a common problem when they reach maximum exertion.

Lasix has no direct impact on equine breakdowns, though there have been some studies that suggest regular use could reduce bone density.

But it is controversial, with some experts saying it can be used to mask illicit substances or treatments to reduce pain or otherwise improve performance. That could cause a breakdown if a horse is forced to race while on a drug to mask an existing injury, for example.

Horsemen, however, have insisted the therapeutic drug enables equine athletes to compete at a high level without experiencing physical distress.

Many questions remained after the surprise announcement, but I think it’s safe to say this is a bold but risky effort by management to get in front of what has been a horrific national story for weeks.

The immediate benefit came in the praise from groups that have long called for the elimination of race-day Lasix, including the Jockey Club and PETA, ordinarily no friend of racing.

“PETA thanks Santa Anita for standing up to all those who have used any means to force injured or unfit horses to run,” Kathy Guillermo, the group’s senior vice president, said in a statement. “This is a historic moment for racing, and PETA urges every track to recognize that the future is now and to follow suit.”

The risk comes from the reaction of horsemen and owners to the announcement. If other tracks don’t quickly follow suit, they might elect to run elsewhere and exacerbate what already is an alarming horse shortage in California.

Santa Anita had been tentatively set to reopen for racing March 22. It was not immediately clear whether the latest death might affect that plan.

#RJhorseracing featured races

Many of the top 3-year-olds in Southern California are in Arkansas this weekend to run in the split divisions of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Track management divided the race to accommodate the sudden surge of interest from California trainers affected by the Santa Anita shutdown, drawing a total of 19 starters.

The 1 1/16th-mile Rebel originally carried a $1 million purse and Kentucky Derby qualifying points to be handed out on a 50-20-10-5 scale. Now each race will have a $750,000 purse and award 37.5, 15, 7.5 and 3.75 Derby points to the top four finishers.

The #RJhorseracing handicappers think the key to both races is a certain white-haired Hall of Fame trainer. Bob Baffert, they correctly note, is great at bringing horses back from layoffs and figure his heavy morning line favorites, Improbable (3-5) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile conquerer Game Winner (4-5), are capable of adding to their spotless resumes.

In the first division, they like Improbable over Galilean (3-1) and Extra Hope (6-1).

I can’t argue too much. Improbable dusted stablemate Mucho Gusto in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity in his last start, and Mucho Gusto came back to easily win the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (Grade 3) at Santa Anita. I’ll use Improbable over Galilean and Long Range Toddy (10-1), a much better horse than his troubled third last out suggests.

In the second division, the crew has Game Winner over Gunmetal Gray (10-1) and Omaha Beach (7-2).

I can’t possibly pick two chalk horses, and I do think Game Winner is more vulnerable than Improbable given he’s been off longer and could have traffic troubles with his closing style.

I’ll go with Gunmetal Gray, though I don’t expect to see anything near 10-1, over Our Braintrust (6-1) and the intriguing long shot Parsimony (30-1). If Game Winner beats me, I’ll tip my cap to him and move on.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Friday. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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