LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The third leg of the Triple Crown will be run Saturday at Belmont Park, and like in most years when a Triple Crown is off the table, it will occur largely outside the notice of the wider sports world, an event to be celebrated by enthusiasts of the sport, but drawing mere casual interest from others.
The bigger event looms ahead in November, when the Breeders’ Cup is scheduled to be held at Santa Anita Park.
That’s the same Santa Anita Park where a horse fatality on Friday put the total at four in 11 days, and that’s after the track shut down for a month over safety concerns. In all, 27 horses have died during racing or training since its winter meet began on Dec. 26. Six others were confirmed dead at the track from “non-racing” causes, though it’s hard to believe that racing didn’t play some kind of role.
This much is now true: There is no way horse racing can bring the most valuable animals in the sport to Santa Anita for the sport’s richest two days of races in November.
You can’t do it for the risk factor. Something is wrong at Santa Anita. And until there’s a better understanding of what is wrong, if I’m an owner or trainer of a Breeders’ Cup horse, I’m wary. I’m thinking twice about coming. And even for those who aren’t skittish, what if there is a mishap during Breeders’ Cup week? What then?
And you can’t bring the event to Santa Anita for public relations reasons. The spotlight on equine fatalities will only grow with the sport’s signature event coming to town. That doesn’t help Santa Anita, and it doesn’t help the sport.
Of course, we’re talking about a sport that doesn’t help itself too often.
Breeders’ Cup officials will meet later this month, and they’ll talk about the site of this year’s event. But there’s no need to wait until then to announce where it will not be.
It’s a sad thing, because there are few settings more beautiful than Santa Anita and the weather is ideal. But the issues there are too serious, both for the future of the sport, and more importantly, the participants.
Churchill Downs often is mentioned as an alternative, and it would be fine. Tracks in the north, like Belmont, might be tougher in early November.
The Breeders’ Cup not only needs to pivot from the mess in California, it would do well to make safety commitment (and record) a part of choosing future sites.
The important thing right now for horse racing is that it not only show concern for equine safety, but that it actually be concerned for equine safety.
Politicians in California are growing restless. HBO’s “Real Sports” tackled the issue in a recent episode, and the results were damning.
“Surprising, alarming and flat-out disgusting,” is how host Bryant Gumbel described the problem, which, if you watch the segment, is difficult to argue.
Not only does it address the issue of horse safety and deaths at tracks during racing and training, but it delves into the less-known world of kill-pens and slaughterhouses, where thoroughbreds often are sold once they outlive their usefulness to the sport.
The Associated Press recently published a story holding up Belmont as one of the safest tracks in America in terms of deaths per 1,000 races. But 15 horses have been confirmed dead at Belmont this year, and 29 a year ago.
A time is coming when horse racing will have to move swiftly and seriously to reform some areas and offer far more transparency in others if it wants to remain in business. And it has started to move that direction. But it needs to pick up the pace.
It could start by encouraging Breeders' Cup leadership to relocate the Breeders’ Cup from Santa Anita, a move that would be in part symbolic of a desire to take seriously the issue of horse deaths, and in part, out of a desire to prevent those deaths from happening on one of the sport’s richest weekends.
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