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Santa Anita’s star-crossed meeting spirals into an existential crisis

Updated April 4, 2019 - 6:39 pm

I really wanted to write this week about the Kentucky Derby, now only a month away, but I can’t ignore the sound of knives being sharpened as horse racing foes look to write the sport’s epitaph in California.

The controversy over the deaths of 23 horses at Santa Anita Park since the current meeting opened on Dec. 26 escalated this week with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California entering the fray. The Democrat sent a letter to state racing officials calling for the immediate suspension of racing at the historic track in Arcadia.

But California Horse Racing Board Chairman Chuck Winner deferred, saying that state law requires him to give a 10-day notice before holding a meeting to consider shifting approved racing dates for Santa Anita to another track. He then scheduled a special board meeting April 12 to “discuss various options regarding racing dates.”

“The purpose of the meeting is to have a broad discussion of all options and to take appropriate action if necessary,” Winner said in a statement.

In the meantime, Santa Anita management elected to go ahead with its regularly scheduled four days of racing, which began Thursday and resulted in no serious incidents. Saturday is one of the track’s signature racing days, with both the the Santa Anita Derby and the Santa Anita Handicap on the card.

In a small concession to the growing outcry, track management said it would not run any races this weekend on its unique hillside turf course, which is where Arms Runner fell while crossing the dirt main track on Sunday in the Grade 3 San Simeon Stakes.

I wrote a few weeks ago that track management made a risky bet in announcing plans to eliminate race day medications and severely limit jockeys’ use of whips in an effort to placate racing critics like PETA. But that’s nothing compared to the wager they are making by racing this weekend.

If, God forbid, another horse goes down, the track’s fate could be sealed, with some PETA supporters already talking about a state ballot petition to prohibit what the group characterizes as a cruel sport.

There’s much more to say about this situation, and I’m sure I’ll return to the subject soon, but for now let’s look ahead to an important weekend of racing that should clarify the Kentucky Derby picture.

#RJhorseracing featured races

With three major Derby preps on Saturday — the Wood Memorial Stakes, the Blue Grass Stakes and the aforementioned Santa Anita Derby, all run at 1 1/8th mile — the #RJhorseracing handicappers are dissecting three races instead of usual two.

The crowd ‘cappers see a competitive race in the Wood Memorial, but came down narrowly on the side of 5-2 morning line favorite Tacitus over Haikal (7-2) and Tax (9-2).

I’ll try my luck with Outshine (6-1), second last out in the Tampa Bay Derby, Tacitus and Final Jeopardy (8-1) in that order.

In the Blue Grass, the crew is solidly backing Win Win Win (7-2) to bounce back in his second route, with Vekoma (9-5) and Somelikeithotbrown (10-1) filling out the minor slots.

I’m down with that as far as the winner, but I have Dream Maker (12-1) and So Alive (15-1) for the place and show dough.

In the Santa Anita Derby, which drew only a six-horse field, the gang almost unanimously lined up behind Bob Baffert’s 4-5 morning line favorite Game Winner. They have Baffert’s other runner, Roadster (5-2) for second ahead of Instagrand (3-1).

I’m going to part company and go with Instagrand. I like the old school move his owner, OXO Equine, pulled by keeping him out of the Breeders’ Cup so that he could mature for his 3-year-old season. I’ve got Game Winner second and Roadster third.

We’re starting a new three-month handicapping contest this week, so this is a great time to get in on the fun. There’s also, dare I say it, a truly fabulous prize for the top handicapper, which I’ll be revealing to participants this weekend.

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

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