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.
Ellis Starr’s Rebel Stakes analysis
Division 1 (Race 8)
I strongly believe Galilean is the one to beat. Galilean has the benefit of a race in 2019, having won the California Cup Derby last month with a 101 Equibase Speed Figure. Galilean earned a 111 figure when he won the King Glorious Stakes prior to that in December, which is the best figure earned by any horse in the field. Better still, Galilean has potential to improve significantly off last month’s effort in his second race following two months off. Another factor in favor of Galilean is he was “ridden out” to victory by four and one-half lengths in the California Cup Derby last month, suggesting he has not peaked by any means. As such, we could see another big effort good enough to win this division of the Rebel Stakes.
Although Improbable has an unblemished record in three races and is likely more physically mature now than as a 2-year-old, he is unlikely to be as physically fit coming back off three months of rest as Galilean is having raced just one month ago. The patterns of improvement of both outstanding colts are similar – Galilean having earned a 93 figure winning his debut last September then improving to 97 and 111 before the layoff, compared to Improbable having earned a 98 figure in his September debut then 104 and 103. Comparing their efforts visually as well, the two colts appear to have all the tools to go on and compete favorably on the Road to the Derby.
Long Range Toddy is the last of three that I think have the bulk of the probability to win this division of the Rebel. Following his fourth place debut effort last summer, Long Range Toddy has been in contention in every one of his six starts, including when winning the Springboard Mile Stakes with a 98 figure last December and when missing by a neck in the Smarty Jones Stakes with a 102 figure in January. However, it was his troubled effort in the Southwest Stakes last month which has me believing with a clean trip he has potential to post the upset. In the Southwest, Long Range Toddy was advancing nicely up the rail from sixth on the turn and into the stretch when he got stuck behind a wall of horses. Jockey Richard Eramia (who is replaced by Jon Court for the Rebel) elected to stay on the rail rather than move laterally and possibly lose momentum. By the time Long Range Toddy had a path to run the leaders were well ahead. Still, Long Range Toddy finished well for third in that race and demonstrated a competitive spirit which must not be taken lightly in the Rebel.
Division 2 (Race 10)
I’m picking Omaha Beach to post the mild upset over likely heavy favorite Game Winner in this division of the Rebel Stakes. Omaha Beach has the benefit of two races in 2019, compared to zero for Game Winner, as well as an improving pattern of Equibase Speed Figures, the most recent a 109. Having begun his career on turf with three in-the-money efforts, Omaha Beach took six weeks off then began his 3-year-old campaign on dirt, first missing by a half-length to highly regarded Nolo Contesto before the nine-length romp last month. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind this colt is bred to be something special, as his dam (Charming) is the dam of 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Take Charge Brandi, who won three more stakes races in a row after that upset win, all around two turns. Mike Smith gets on for the first time. He is also scheduled to ride Extra Hope in the first division of the Rebel for Dick Mandella and there is potential for this Hall of Fame team to be in the limelight in both races with their talented charges.
Our Braintrust has never been worse than third in five races and continues to improve with each start. He earned a 99 figure when second in the Jerome Stakes on New Year’s Day then was privately purchased by Gary Barber and sent to trainer Mark Casse. In his first start for Casse and first start around two-turns, Our Braintrust improved to a career-best 103 figure when coming up inches short of winning the Withers Stakes. With blinkers going on for the Rebel, Our Braintrust could be that much more focused on the task at hand and is another with more than average potential to post the win and upset Game Winner in the process.
Game Winner is not a horse to ignore as a contender to win the Rebel, but certainly as the likely prohibitive favorite from a betting perspective is a poor wager to win. Undefeated in four starts, Game Winner improved by leaps and bounds off his 94 figure debut last August, winning the Del Mar Futurity with a 100 figure in September before a dominant win in the American Pharoah Stakes with a 111 figure in September. He then defeated 12 others easily in the Breeder’ Cup Juvenile but did regress to a 100 figure. With some steady workouts in California for trainer Bob Baffert, who won this race six of seven times between 2010 and 2016, Game Winner could be totally ready to run two-turns in top company and win this year’s Rebel.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.