It’s one of the oldest tactical moves in the PR playbook: When disaster happens, find someone else to blame.
We saw that maneuver executed to perfection last week when management at Santa Anita Park, after resisting calls to end its meet early to prevent any further horse deaths, ordered trainer Jerry Hollendorfer to load his horses, pack his gear and get out of Dodge — in this case Santa Anita and his longtime base at Golden Gate Fields.
Let me say up front that I have no inside knowledge of what led to the decision to excommunicate the 73-year-old Hall of Fame trainer other than the obvious fact that he lost four horses — the most of any trainer — to the injury scourge that claimed 30 equine lives at Santa Anita since Dec. 26. He also reportedly had two horses die at Golden Gate during the period, though one appeared to suffer a heart attack.
But blaming one of the most accomplished and hardest-working trainers in the game for the ills that befell the track seems ludicrous.
Streaks happen all the time in horse racing, and the fact that four horses had to be euthanized is hardly an indication that he’s suddenly become incompetent or is up to no good. He told the Paulick Report this week that he didn’t think he lost any horses the two previous years (I’ve requested the records from the California Horse Racing Board to try to verify that).
And other racetracks, including Los Alamitos, Belmont Park and Monmouth Park, have said Hollendorfer is welcome to continue racing at their facilities. Del Mar, which opens for its summer meet July 17, is expected to announce its decision in the next few days.
Then there’s the 19 medication violations since 2006 reported in a CNN story that coincidentally singled out Hollendorfer shortly before he was banned. I went through everything in his record (it’s all available at the California Horse Racing Board website) and found that all but one was for an overage of Phenylbutazone or some other legal therapeutic drug, meaning it was likely administered slightly too close to a race or didn’t clear the horse’s system in the time frame.
The lone infraction of a more serious nature was a horse that tested positive for scopolamine in February 2007 at Bay Meadows. Scopolamine is a Class III substance, meaning it has no approved therapeutic purpose. However, it’s also an active ingredient in jimsonweed, which has been known to contaminate hay and cause positive tests.
In any case, Hollendorfer paid the $1,000 fine and moved on.
Officials with The Stronach Group, owners of Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But in a statement last week, management said: “We regret that Mr. Hollendorfer’s record in recent months at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields has become increasingly challenging and does not match the level of safety and accountability we demand.”
One can only hope that Hollendorfer will soldier on and that the desire for accountability applies to the C-Suite as well as those who work long and hard every day with their horses.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers are looking north this week, taking on the $1 million Queen’s Plate — the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown — and the $300,000 Highlander Stakes preceding it at Woodbine Racetrack.
In the Highlander, a 6 furlong turf dash, the crew is siding with Extravagant Kid, 6-1 on the morning line. They have Caribou Club (7-5) and White Flag (7-2) knotted for second.
I have White Flag on top, with Wet Your Whistle and Caribou Club filling out the top slots.
In the Queen’s Plate, run at 1¼ miles on the all-weather synthetic track, the crowd ’cappers are giving a slight edge to Skywire, 4-1 on the morning line, over favored Avie’s Flatter (5-2), with One Bad Boy (7-2) and Desert Ride (8-1) tied for third.
“Afeet Alex colt for (trainer Mark) Casse draws inside of Avie’s Flatter and been working well for this,” wrote handicapper Mas Yoshinaga of the crew’s pick.
I’m breaking ranks and going with Tone Broke (6-1), who ran great when finishing second in the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico, over Avie’s Flatter and the filly Desert Ride (8-1), who needs only to improve a bit to extend the recent female domination of this race.
Ellis Starr’s Highlander Stakes analysis
Wet Your Whistle gets slight preference among a quartet that appear most probable to win, if for no other reason than he is likely to go to post at the highest odds of the four. He won two of eight races last year, but only one was a turf sprint. Starting off his 4-year-old campaign in April following four months off, Wet Your Whistle won a turf sprint rather easily when going from sixth, nearly five lengths back on the turn, to the lead and before drawing off by three lengths. Next time out on May 19, Wet Your Whistle won just as easily to take the Get Serious Stakes on the turf at Monmouth, improving to a career-best 117 Equibase Speed Figure. As such, with logical improvement in his third start of the year, Wet Your Whistle could post the upset in this race.
Extravagant Kid also enters the Highlander off a stakes win, having won the Mighty Beau Stakes at Churchill Downs four weeks ago. The 116 figure earned was a career-best and as good as the figure Wet Your Whistle earned in his most recent race so there’s little doubt Extravagant Kid can rwin. He’s also an extremely consistent horse as he’s finished no worse than second in seven of his last eight races, all but one of those stakes races. Although based in Kentucky with trainer Brendan Walsh, Wet Your Whistle shipped to Woodbine for the Jacques Cartier Stakes on the all-weather track in May and he wasn’t disgraced one bit when second to the incomparable Pink Lloyd that day. Per a STATS Race Lens individual research query, over the last five years, Walsh has won with six of 19 horses in turf sprints which won their previous start. Getting local top jockey R. M. Hernandez is another sign Extravagant Kid has every chance to win this year’s Highlander Stakes.
White Flag is pretty accomplished as well, with five wins in 13 career turf starts including the Aqueduct Turf Sprint Championship last fall at this 6-furlong turf trip. He stretched out to a mile for the Tropical Turf Stakes in January and faded to fourth after leading from the start, but the cut back to six furlongs suits him perfectly. Having earned 113 figures in three straight races before the Tropical Turf, White Flag would need only the slightest improvement to run as well as Wet Your Whistle and Extravagant Kid have run in their best races and be very competitive in this spot.
Caribou Club has the second highest career earnings in the field at $504,744. He’s raced exclusively on grass in his career, winning seven of 18 races. The most relevant of those wins came last year at Woodbine when the won the Connaught Cup, earning a career-best 112 figure. Caribou Club duplicated that effort and the same figure twice since, winning the Seabiscuit Stakes in November around two turns then winning the Joe Hernandez Stakes in January down the hillside turf course at Santa Anita. Then, shipping half-way across the world for his next start on March 30 in the Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai, Caribou Club trailed throughout and finished last of 13. He’s come back to work well and if he can rebound to the form shown last year or in January, he certainly can run well enough to win. On the other hand, those 112 figure efforts aren’t as good as the effort Wet Your Whistle put forth in his most recent race nor the effort Extravagant Kid put forth in his most recent race, so it might be hard to consider a win bet on Caribou Club at low odds.
El Tormenta appears to be a cut below the four main contenders but is not completely without a chance. He’s a four year old who may have improving to do and enters the race off a win in the Connaught Cup Stakes over the course four weeks ago. The effort earned a decent 106 figure, which was a big improvement off the 94 figure earned in April in his first start of the year and following six months off. Considering potential improvement, El Tormenta does have a shot to run competitively in the Highlander Stakes.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.