For The Stronach Group these days, it’s a whole different world in Florida. Things couldn’t be brighter. The achievements of TSG at Gulfstream Park have been extraordinary. Setting new records every winter has become routine. But what TSG has done with the challenging summer season since taking it over from Calder has been perhaps its greatest accomplishment.
There have been significant changes to summer racing since Calder checked out but extra credit to TSG for maintaining a signal accomplishment of the Calder regime, the Summit of Speed, which renews Saturday. The series of big-money sprint races was the brainchild of then Calder GM Kenny Dunn and his creative marketing director Mike Cronin.
At the turn of the millennium, Calder was an off the beaten track, second tier track once the snowbirds went home. Dunn and Cronin wanted a way to remind the industry, “Hey, we’re still here.” Eradicating the image of a hot, sweaty, unbearable place during the summer (not totally unmerited) was the biggest obstacle.
Through dogged perseverance and calling in favors from their many friends, Dunn, Cronin and their beloved racing secretary, the late Bobby Umphrey, who has a stakes named for him Saturday, managed to cajole a few big horses south for the early runnings.
Those who came realized it really wasn’t so bad, in a big way laying the foundation for what Calder and now Gulfstream became. Besides, there was big money to be made and reputations to be enhanced.
D. Wayne Lukas started sending down horses. So did his most successful protege, Todd Pletcher. Bill Mott and Steve Asmussen have shipped in stable stars. Even Bob Baffert has been attracted from California.
Eventual Eclipse Sprint Champions Lost in the Fog, Orientate, Benny the Bull and Big Drama burnished their credentials with Summit of Speed victories. Gradually, the Summit became a major stop on the racing calendar for one-turn horses.
The Graded Stakes Committee took notice. The Princess Rooney was made a Grade 1 (recently unfairly demoted to Grade 2) and the Smile Sprint is a Grade 2. Breeders’ Cup made the Princess Rooney a win-and-you’re-in event.
In the beginning local horsemen were annoyed that the out-of-town star trainers were taking big money that could have enhanced regular purses. To their credit, instead of doing anything to undermine the event, they took the sensible route. They pointed the best of what they had to defend the home turf (and dirt).
Saturday’s renewal will feature some stellar shippers. Mike Stidham is bringing in Saguro Row for the Princess Rooney and Proforma for the Smile. But locally-based horses are the morning line favorites in both stakes.
Long-time Florida regular Kathleen O’Connell could have the kind of day Chad Brown often has in New York. O’Connell has the early favorites in three of the stakes.
Story Embrace, winner of the 2018 Princess Rooney, is 4-5 to defend her title against six rivals. She’s coming off a 10 ½ length romp in the Musical Embrace, the same prep she used last year. That race was validated when Lady’s Island, who ran second, returned to win the Nicole’s Dream by 9.
Jalen Journey, on a three-race winning streak, is the early 9-5 choice in the Smile. Vying for favoritism with him is Garters and Ties, who has been knocking heads for the past two years with the best of his generation and won his last by more than 10. Another streaker, who will have substantial backing is Royal Squeeze, 4-for-4 since being claimed by newcomer Elizabeth Robles, who’s hitting at only a 34% clip.
Grade 3 Sam F. Davis winner Well Defined returns to the races for the first time since the Tampa Bay Derby as the favorite in the Carry Back.
Top to bottom, the 14-race, five-stakes Summit card will arguably be the best racing program in the nation this weekend.
Santa Anita Closes But Tough Times Continue
Belinda Stronach truly loves horses. If she did not run The Stronach Group tracks, I could easily see her as a member of PETA or some other animal rights groups. This has led her to make some horrendous decisions in haste.
Most notable was getting into bed with PETA’s Kathy Guillermo, the Tokyo Rose of horse racing. Guillermo sweet talked Stronach into believing they shared the same goal, the protection of horses. Guillermo’s means to that end, of course, is ending racing. She initially denied this but since has revealed her true purpose.
This past weekend, Stronach made another bad call on the spur of the moment. Less than 24 hours after CNN did a sensational “expose” on the tragic horse deaths at Santa Anita, which was especially harsh on Jerry Hollendorfer, she ruled the Hall of Fame trainer off the grounds and said he could no longer stable, train or enter horses at TSG tracks.
Hollendorfer appears to be a victim of a circumstantial numbers game. Four horses under his care, the most of any trainer, are among the 30 who have perished since the end of December. Nowhere in Santa Anita’s ruling or post-mortems by inquiring minds has any specific infraction been alleged.
Last week I made a comment on how California officials have a Pontius Pilate attitude. In other words, throw someone to the bellowing mob in the hope it will shut them up for a while. Alas, Stronach now belongs in this category.
The numbers are distressing but Bob Baffert had seven horses under his care die under mysterious circumstances within 17 months in 2011-2013. No penalty was assessed. Baffert was given a hearing and cleared himself to the satisfaction of the California Horse Racing Board.
Hollendorfer has not gotten any such consideration. Out of the blue, he was told, “You’re out of here!” They didn’t even bother to plant incriminating evidence, as a New York State investigator allegedly did to Rick Dutrow.
As un-American as this might seem, race tracks have the absolute right to decide who they want on their grounds and in their entries. The only exceptions would be exclusions based on gender, race or ethnicity. Hollendorfer has the misfortune of being a white male.
Speaking of Dutrow, it’s significant that NYRA, the catalyst for Dutrow’s 10-year suspension, and which had to endure a similar spate of horse deaths in 2015, has told Hollendorfer he is welcome at its tracks. It’s beyond doubt NYRA performed an abundance of due diligence given the circumstances under which Hollendorfer was told to vacate Santa Anita.
Hollendorfer also got a vote of confidence from Edward Allred, who said Hollendorfer is welcome at his track. “Los Alamitos will gladly provide stalls to Jerry Hollendorfer. Unless forbidden by the CHRB, we intend to permit entries from Hollendorfer. We do not feel he should be a scapegoat for a problem which derives from a number of factors.”
The latter point is significant. Santa Anita has no idea what caused the inordinate number of equine fatalities, only theories. However, through its treatment of Hollendorfer it is essentially saying he is a big part of the problem.
With Stronach making arbitrary decisions, which could end a horsemen’s career, and the California Horse Racing Board now having the ability to shut down racing without advance notice, California racing continues to hasten its own demise.
© Tom Jicha, HorseRaceInsider.com, 2019, All Rights Reserved