By Tom Jicha

The deaths of 21 horses in racing and training at Santa Anita have brought the scrutiny of the nation down on racing. The ripple effect of the suspension of racing has thrown Triple Crown preparations into chaos nationwide. Santa Anita officials are taking the right steps but so far there is no solution. Unfortunately, there appears to be no appetite to connect the dots between the breakdowns and horses racing on drugs. Perhaps it takes a crisis as daunting as the one at Santa Anita for the powers-that-be in racing to examine what horses racing on drugs is doing to the game. If the Jockey Club and race tracks don't act, others not friendly to racing will.

Crisis has become an overworked term of late. However, there is no word more appropriate for the situation in racing. To extend the terminology, this could be an existential crisis. The future of racing might be at stake.

After 21 horse deaths on the race track, Santa Anita, one of the glamour meetings on the American racing calendar, is locked down and no one knows for how long. Tim Ritvo, usually one of the most accessible executives in racing, has gone to radio silence. Just as well. When you don’t have answers, it’s best not to pretend you do.

The story has spilled from the racing media to the national media. The TV networks have taken note. Sports Illustrated and ESPN, which largely ignore racing, are on the case.

All of this is catnip for animal rights organizations, such as PETA, who would love to do to racing what they have done to the circus and greyhound racing. Picket lines manned by people from horseracingwrongs.com are showing up outside race tracks. Now they have the mainstream media giving exposure to their arguments.

The shutdown has wiped out the biggest event of the winter season, Big Cap Day, which has also become home to one of the most important Kentucky Derby preps, the San Felipe. Another important Grade 1, the Kilroe Mile, has also been put into Limbo.

These stakes will be rescheduled, according to the Santa Anita racing department. This is not a major issue with the Big Cap and the Kilroe since Santa Anita runs into June. With the clock ticking and the calendar turning, it’s probably pointless to reschedule the San Felipe. It is the final prep for the April 6 Santa Anita Derby. This is assuming Santa Anita is back up and running by April 6.

Losing the San Felipe is having a ripple effect throughout the nation on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Bob Baffert had targeted this race for the seasonal debut of his undefeated one-two punch, Game Winner and Improbable. The cancelation came too late for Baffert to put them on a plane for the Gotham at Aqueduct or Tampa Bay Derby.

The most famous trainer in racing says he is keeping his options open but he is almost forced to take both to the Rebel at Oaklawn on March 16. Starting his two stars out any later, such as the Louisiana Derby on March 23 or the Florida Derby on March 30, would make it difficult to get the desired two preps into them by the first Saturday in May.

Alas, Baffert had already ticketed the improving Mucho Gusto for the Rebel. It would be insane to start his top three Derby prospects in the same prep, but he might not have to.

Given the circumstances, Oaklawn indicated it will split the Rebel if as many as 20 horses show up. Game Winner and Improbable could wind up in different divisions. With two divisions, each purse would be worth $750,000, with 75% worth of the Derby qualifying points available for each race in that scenario by rule. So the 50 points originally ticketed for the winner would be downgraded to 37 1/2. The 20 for second will be 15, the 10 for third drops to 7 1/2 and the five for fourth becomes 3 ¾.

Where this leaves Mucho Gusto is problematic. As the barn’s third stringer, he could be redirected elsewhere or he could be forced to face one of the first-stringers. This is what an owner gets when he puts his stock under Baffert's or any one of the super trainers' shedrow.

With other Derby hopefuls on the West Coast also looking for new opportunities, a split Rebel is more likely than not. Jerry Hollendorfer, who was sending Galilean to Hot Springs, might have to opt to put San Felipe-bound Gunmetal Gray on the same plane. Richard Mandella was pointing Omaha Beach to the Rebel. Stablemate Extra Hope, another San Felipe candidate, could go with him.

But all this is secondary to the primary issue, the fatal breakdowns of 21 horses. This is heart-breaking and unacceptable. If it isn’t addressed by racing, it’s inevitable outside forces, first animal activists and eventually lawmakers will insinuate themselves into the situation. Both would be bad news for racing, realistically and optically.

Simplistic ideas, shot from the hip, would abound. A mischievous statewide ballot initiative, California’s specialty, is not out of the realm of possibility. With the help of the media, California’s draconian solutions could spread nationwide the first time a horse breaks down elsewhere.

The vexing reality is you can’t solve a problem until you know what it is. In spite of doing all the right things, Santa Anita is still in the dark. It closed the track for training last week to have experts fine comb every inch of the racing surface. Using ground penetrating radar, Mick Peterson of the University of Kentucky couldn’t identify anything out of the ordinary.

After the most recent equine death Monday, the closure was announced until an answer could be found. Former Santa Anita track maintenance whiz Dennis Moore, one the foremost track maintenance specialists in America, has been brought back for consultation.

This winter has been extraordinarily wet and cold. Rainfall is at record levels. This is the first February in more than a century that the temperature didn’t reach 70. If this is the culprit, or even a major contributing factor, there is not much that can be done beyond the futility of praying for better weather in the future.

The gorilla in the room everyone is reluctant to acknowledge is the role medications play. It would be foolhardy to think this is not a major factor. Anyone who takes this position should be forced to read the recent columns by HRI’s Mark Berner.

Years ago when Lasix and other medications became permissible on race days, thinking horse people predicted America would soon be breeding unsound sires, who needed drugs to compete, to unsound drug-assisted mares, weakening the breed. These chickens are coming home to roost.

It is so disingenuous as to be laughable to claim Lasix is not performance enhancing. It’s the reason in excess of 96 percent of American starters run on the drug. What a sorry state the American thoroughbred breed is in if 24 of every 25 starters need help not to bleed from the lungs. If this were truly the case, racing ought to end. Of course, it is not as jurisdictions everywhere else in the world demonstrate.

I remember when Lasix came to prominence. First- and second-time Lasix became a profitable handicapping angle because horses improved so rapidly and dramatically. The only reason this angle has disappeared is now they all run on Lasix (and whatever goes in behind it).

If it is not already too late, the Jockey Club must step in and after a suitable (but short as possible) weaning period, refuse to register offspring of sires and dams who made the majority of their starts on Lasix. This is a drastic step but racing is in a drastic situation.

Another necessary step is for tracks to seize back the right to run their own game. Giving horsemen the power to shut down racing by refusing to allow simulcasting via the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 is the worst thing lawmakers have ever done to racing.

In their defense, they didn’t realize what they were doing. Lawmakers have more pressing issues. Simulcasting wasn’t that big a deal 30 years ago. Getting this provision rescinded should take on the same urgency as repeal of the withholding tax on winnings did. Human and equine lives are at risk.

In the absence or in advance of this, tracks need to play hardball with HBPA. Give notice that Lasix and other medications will no longer be allowed on race days. If horsemen balk and refuse to give permission to simulcast, shut down the track until they relent. If it takes tough love, so be it.

Race tracks can afford a shutdown a lot longer than horsemen can. Framing the issue as an effort to eliminate drugs would win over public opinion. When owners complain they are not going to continue to pay per diems while their trainers try to make a point, the HBPA will be forced to give in.

Besides, owners will save $35 or more every time their horse goes to the post without Lasix--against other horses without Lasix.

If the Jockey Club and the race tracks don’t become involved, other entities less sympathetic and favorable to racing will enact their own remedies. There is more than a 96 percent probability racing will hate what they do.

Gotham tops Derby preps

It’s not often that a Derby prep at Aqueduct, including the Wood Memorial, comes up the best race of a busy weekend of Kentucky Derby trials. Saturday’s Gotham makes this grade.

It might not be for the best of reasons but Jerry Hollendorfer is either prescient or a genius. He didn’t know when he decided to ship his brilliant colt Instagrand east that the catastrophic situation at Santa Anita would result in the San Felipe being postponed.

The widespread impression was Hollendorfer was trying to avoid a potential scorched earth battle of unbeatens with Game Winner and Improbable. Even if this were true, it was the smart move. It made little sense to have three of the top half-dozen Derby contenders face off a few days short of two months out from Churchill Downs.

Moreover, the San Felipe was going to be the first race for each as a 3-year-old, generally a scenario in which star horses ease into their showcase season. In the case of Instagrand, it was going to be his first race since Aug. 11 when he made a 10-length-plus tour de force in the Best Pal Stakes the second and final start of his eye-catching juvenile campaign.

Any thoughts that Instagrand was easing into a non-challenging spot have been erased by the makeup of the Gotham field. Instagrand might have faced two Grade 1 winners out west but he is running into two Grade 1 winners at the Big A, although this case is a prime example of how all Grade 1 stakes are not close to equal.

Mind Control took the Hopeful last summer and started his sophomore year with a decisive win in the Jerome. Trainer Greg Sacco said the colt owned by the late John Brunetti’s Red Oak Stable has put on more muscle in the right places and is coming into this race better than he did in the Jerome.

Knicks Go ran off with the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last fall and came right back to place behind Game Winner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Knicks Go has been a disappointment since, most recently running off the board in Tampa’s Sam F. Davis. But the back class is there and could bubble back to the surface at any time.

It’s not as if Hollendorfer is totally avoiding Team Baffert as Bullet Bob is sending Much Better, who rebounded from a third in the Sham to win an optional claimer impressively. If Baffert knew what was coming on the West Coast, he probably would have sent one of his first-stringers.

Instagrand lends atypical star power to the Gotham but he’ll have to bring his A game to his first try beyond six furlongs to live up to his notices. I’ll use him in Pick 3’s but my win bet will be on Mind Control.

Home court edge to WWW

The current Kentucky Derby favorite has a name that fits him, Game Winner. So does the favorite for Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby, Win, Win, Win. That’s what he has done in three of four races, including a track record in Tampa's seven furlong Pasco Stakes. He did that after a poor break, which has been a problem with him. The question mark is two turns, which WWW hasn’t done. His Achilles Heel might not be as much of a problem going long.

If the favorite isn’t up to two turns, Dream Maker could be in line to pick up his first stakes credential. He’s two-for-two in non-stakes, zero-for-two in added-money events. But his last, his season debut. was an 8 ½ length win in a Fair Grounds allowance. A repeat would probably be good enough to handle the stakes horses he faces in the showcase race of Tampa Bay’s season.

Well Defined is another who’s at his best when not facing the very best. He wired the Sam F. Davis field but there were no budding starts chasing him home. His other stakes victory was in the restricted In Reality division of the Florida Sire Stakes. There should be enough speed Saturday to make a front-running score less likely.

The best of the stretching-out sprinters might be Todd Pletcher’s Outshine. He was precocious enough to win his debut in May of his juvenile season then went to the sidelines after Todd wheeled him right back in the Tremont in June. Something happened in that race in which he ran fifth. Outshine wasn’t seen for eight months. His comeback in a seven furlong dash at Gulfstream was a workmanlike triumph. It’s not wise to ignore the Todd Squad in this race. He’s won four of the past six runnings.

Tacitus, is another likely to be well supported because of his address. He comes from the loaded Bill Mott outfit but this is his strongest talking point. He has only an MSW win on a wet track in November at Aqueduct. The fact that he was 3-5 coming off a fair fourth in his debut at 8-1 speaks to the caliber of his opposition that day. As with Pletcher, it’s perilous to leave out a Mott horse in a stakes but you have to draw the line someplace and I’m drawing it through Tacitus.

Tampa is a tough track to ship into. For that reason alone, I give Win Win Win a slight advantage over Dream Maker. On a neutral surface, my opinion would flip.

©Tom Jicha, MAR 7, 2019,HorseRaceInsider.com