LOS ANGELES, CA, December 20, 2021 — The marketing of Santa Anita’s opening day as “the gift you open the day after Christmas” always makes me smile . I first experienced the event in 1980 when Spectacular Bid won the Malibu.
Little did I know that he would represent the end of an era; that no subsequent accomplished snowbird who flew West for the winter would compare with the likes of champions such as Buckpasser, Damascus, and Affirmed who preceded him to Arcadia.
Six graded stakes will be offered on December 26 this year, with the Malibu, La Brea, and American Oaks, filling the gap in Grade I racing between the Starlet on December 4 and the Pegasus twins on January 29.
While the lull following the Breeders’ Cup provides a welcome respite to recoup enthusiasm for the game and to replenish one’s energy and bankroll for the next annual assault on the Triple Crown preps.
It also should be noted that the Eclipse Award folks cautioned voters not to fill out their ballots until Santa Anita’s graded stakes, notably the G1 Malibu, have been contested. The results can have an impact.
Although the Clark was won by Gun Runner prior to his championship year, Maximum Security actually needed the Cigar Mile to support his ambition for three-year-old honors.
While the grassy Hollywood Derby’s most notable past winners were dirt champions Riva Ridge, Affirmed, and California Chrome seeking turf credentials, the Matriarch continues to draw Breeders’ Cup level contenders.
With respect to this issue, perhaps it’s time to consider a role in this for the Horse Racing Integrity and Security Act folks after they deal with more pressing matters.
I would argue that race scheduling can be an integrity issue. Perhaps HISA should adapt the old U.S. Army recruiting slogan, “Be all that you can be” as its guiding principle:
Make racing the most competitive, transparent, and as fair as it can be with the betting in mind. The starting point is for tracks to cooperatively schedule graded stakes, minimizing divisional conflicts and maximizing availability of qualified starters through more attractive spacing as appropriate.
A reassessment of stakes grading will be necessary if the total amount of Grade 1 victories is to remain the currency for Eclipse Award titles.
Until recently, the focus of Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. has been almost solely on the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.
It may still be for fans and horseplayers but not as much for trainers and owners of Derby starters who increasingly now skip the Preakness, ignore the Belmont, or both.
The main objection to participating in the second leg is its anachronistic scheduling of being run only two weeks after the Derby.
The Belmont’s unpopular twelve furlongs is further disincentivized by the three week spacing from the Preakness.
Only the potential for winning the Triple Crown motivates the Derby winner to risk its long term health negotiating all three legs, but it seldom entices others.
Two weeks was apparently not enough time to recharge the battery of the late 2021 Derby winner, Medina Spirit, who tired at the shorter distance of the Preakness even though he subsequently re-affirmed his stamina in the BC Classic of fall.
This didn’t fit the pattern of his amazing trainer, Bob Baffert ,who won the Derby an incredible five times previously with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015), and Justify (2018); all of whom annexed the Preakness as well.
The twice-beaten American Pharoah and the unbeaten Justify both went on to win the Belmont. [Recall that Authentic (2020) won the Derby in the year it was not the first leg of the triad].
Medina Spirit, it should be noted, broke the pattern in two other ways: 1–He tested positive for an illegal medication [for which he may yet be disqualified] and 2–He wasn’t retired to stud, having died suddenly on the racetrack following a workout.
Unfortunately, that death fits another Baffert-associated pattern of “sudden deaths” in his barn, including the seven horses that during an 16-month period covering 2011 to 2013.
Baffert won the Preakness with Point Given (2001) and Lookin At Lucky (2010), the former taking the Belmont as well.
Perhaps the most impressive statistic is the five Triple Crown attempts he engineered over twenty five years that not only included two winners, but also two that just missed in successive years when Silver Charm and Real Quiet finished second, each beaten narrowly.
I find it somewhat hypocritical that two tracks, Churchill Downs and Belmont Park, are both putting Baffert’s feet to the fire after benefiting significantly from his participation on their biggest days for decades.
It’s not unlike Golden Gate’s turning its back on Jerry Hollendorfer who virtually kept them in business by filling race cards there for years. It should be possible to deal with their respective situations without pre-emptive bans.
Baffert could have been punished each time one of his horses tested positive, placing his license in jeopardy long before this year. Indeed, no trainer should have been exempt from such discipline. So why are they? To deprive the public of the best competition available in its most popular races at the whim of track executives makes little sense.
Safety protocols had already been in place at Stronach tracks to prevent Hollendorfer and others from starting what they deemed horses at risk. It wasn’t necessary to dismantle Hollendorfer’s operation to force compliance with emergency measures.
I can accept the possibility, if not the probability, that Baffert does not deserve my respect for many of his accomplishments. I am no fan of his arrogance and power.
But until I see regulators putting the same pressure on other “super trainers” with similarly large stables filled with the best stock money and also are steamrolling their competition into oblivion, I’ll wait for HISA to put more heads on the chopping block or, at minimum, construct rules helping to rid the game of people who would ruin it for everyone.