By BYRON KING for BLOODHORSE — Three months after the conclusion of a troubled winter/spring meet at Santa Anita Park marked by 30 equine fatalities from racing or training, Santa Anita reopens Sept. 27 for its 23-day autumn season with scrutinizing eyes upon it.
If the Arcadia, Calif., track, which hosts the Breeders’ Cup World Championships for a record 10th time Nov. 1-2, can experience a safe meet—as Del Mar did this summer without a single serious afternoon racing injury—management and horsemen can breathe easier. But should a steady resumption of catastrophic injuries occur at the pace of the six-month winter/spring meet, mounting political pressure could jeopardize California racing.
“What happened last (meet) was unacceptable, and all of the excuses be damned,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom told The New York Times. “We own that going into the next season, and we’re going to have to do something about it. I’ll tell you, talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform. That’s horse racing.”
Safety reforms that began at Santa Anita in March and continued at Del Mar this summer are again in place for the autumn meeting, which runs through Nov. 3. This includes up to 48-hour racing and workout evaluation by a seven-person veterinary team led by Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. This veterinary panel will monitor past performance, workout patterns, and veterinary records and observe horses in their daily exercise routines.
The protocols have led to fewer injuries, though not perfection. In pre-meet training, the 4-year-old gelding Zeke was euthanized Sept. 17 after a Sept. 16 injury on Santa Anita’s training track, just the second of the year over that particular surface.
Beyond horse welfare, the story of the upcoming Santa Anita meet is the return of the Breeders’ Cup after the track last hosted it in 2016. The Breeders’ Cup endorsed its commitment to Santa Anita in a meeting in Lexington in late June when Breeders’ Cup president and CEO Craig Fravel said his organization was encouraged by the actions taken by TSG, horsemen, and the California Horse Racing Board to address equine safety.
Fravel, a former racing executive at Del Mar, will join TSG after the Breeder’s Cup. He accepted a role this month as CEO of racing operations.
The opening-day card at Santa Anita has an unmistakable Breeders’ Cup connection. Two of the three graded stakes serve as preps for the Breeders’ Cup: the Chandelier Stakes (G1) for fillies and the counterpart race for males, the American Pharoah Stakes (G1). Both races, around two turns and at 1 1/16 miles, are part of the Challenge Series, providing automatic entry-paid berths in the Juvenile Fillies (G1) and TVG Juvenile (G1), respectively.
The American Pharoah, named in honor of the 2015 Triple Crown winner who won this race in 2014 when it was called the FrontRunner Stakes (G1), drew the deepest stakes field of the day with nine horses. Leading contenders include American Theorem, Eight Rings, Express Train, Storm the Court, Shoplifted, Nucky, and Collusion Illusion.
The 9-5 morning-line favorite is Bob Baffert trainee Eight Rings. Baffert trained American Pharoah and seven other winners of this race. The Empire Maker colt, a 6 1/4-length first-out winner, adds blinkers after a Runhappy Del Mar Futurity (G1) fiasco in which he ducked sharply toward the rail in the opening sixteenth of a mile, unseating his rider, Drayden Van Dyke, and impeding Storm the Court, who lost jockey Flavien Prat.
John Velazquez, in town from his regular base at Belmont Park, has been named to ride by Baffert, who said he made the change in advance, fearful Van Dyke might not be ready to ride by Friday after injuring his right arm in the Del Mar Futurity fall. Van Dyke has mounts in three races, beginning with Antigone in the second race.
Nucky and Collusion Illusion are graded stakes winners. Nucky won the Del Mar Futurity, a race the connections of Collusion Illusion chose to bypass after he won the Best Pal Stakes (G2) Aug. 10 at Del Mar.
A colt by Twirling Candy , Collusion Illusion won his other start in a July 21 maiden race at Del Mar for trainer Mark Glatt and owners Dan Agnew, Jerry Schneider, John Xitco, and Rodney Orr.
“The owners of the horse understood my thinking—that we would pass the Futurity and point for one of these Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” races, whether it be at Santa Anita or Keeneland or at Belmont,” Glatt said. “And it looks like we’ll stay home and run here Friday.”
Bred in Florida by Donald Dizney out of the First Dude mare Natalie Grace, Collusion Illusion was a $300,000 purchase by Glatt from Mayberry Farm’s consignment to the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training. He has not yet routed, true of all entrants with the exception of maiden winner Express Train.
“He’s just an average-sized horse, but he’s got some length and a nice stride,” Glatt said. “So there isn’t any reason to believe he won’t go two turns.”