Future of Santa Anita Turf Sprints: 5, 5 1/2 or 6 1/2 Furlongs?
Santa Anita Park management is considering multiple options for how future turf sprints will be configured, even as the Breeders’ Cup championships there loom 15 weeks away with two graded grass races already announced at the five-furlong distance.
Reopening the downhill turf course for 6 1/2-furlong sprints is one option. Building a new 5 1/2-furlong backstretch turf chute that starts on the main dirt track near the seven-eighths pole is another. Keeping races at five furlongs with a turf rail placement modified from the current setup is also a possibility.
And further in the future, Santa Anita might consider “flipping” its track configuration so that the entirety of the grass course is outside of the main track and not within it.
All of those in-flux turf course plans emerged as part of an otherwise routine discussion about the track’s licensure at Thursday’s monthly California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) meeting in Del Mar.
The impromptu debate about the merits of different turf sprint configurations was sparked when representatives of The Stronach Group (TSG), which owns Santa Anita, submitted an autumn stakes schedule that includes 6 1/2-furlong turf races. CHRB vice chair Madeline Auerbach noted the change, and asked if TSG had reversed a safety decision it made in early April to stop carding sprint races over its downhill course.
In the midst of Santa Anita’s 30-horse fatality crisis this past spring, track management had flagged the downhill turf course as a safety concern and closed it after the March 31 death of a sprinter who suffered a catastrophic injury on the portion of that configuration that crosses the main dirt track and rejoins the inside of the grass straightway at the head of the stretch.
Turf sprints for the remainder of the spring meet were instead carded for five furlongs, starting on the back straightaway like at most other North American tracks.
Until last autumn, Santa Anita had never before carded turf sprints that started on the back straight. But in an experiment that began last October–months before there were any safety concerns about the downhill course and its crossover–the track began running some turf sprints for the first time at five furlongs to give greater flexibility in race distances.
Tim Ritvo, TSG’s chief operating officer, answered Auerbach’s question about the change by saying that Santa Anita is considering going back to sprints on the downhill course for “selective races.”
But Ritvo added the track is also mulling other short- and long-range options to provide the safest grass sprint options.
The 6 1/2-furlong races over the downhill course had long been considered an offbeat European-style course quirk unique to Santa Anita. But Ritvo acknowledged on Thursday that a 10-year statistical study recently identified “spikes” of injuries that occur primarily on that layout’s turf/dirt crossover section. Yet the five-furlong turf sprints that began last year were found to have their own separate potential for peril, because a temporary inside rail placement just after the three-eighths pole that is necessary to preserve the downhill course crossover (even when it’s not in use) makes for a dangerous jutting-out situation.
“Talking to a lot of the jockeys, they have said that going [fast opening split times] into that turn, the elbow comes out, and it’s throwing a lot of horses out [causing] a lot of bouncing around,” said commissioner Alex Solis, a Hall-of-Fame jockey who is not currently an active rider. “And [when horses] switch leads at the three-eighths pole, they’re coming in, so it’s causing a chain reaction.”
Auerbach added that the lack of banking on the far turn for the five-furlong configuration is also a safety issue.
“In the five [furlong races] there’s no banking on the turf, so when the horses come around the turn to come into the stretch, they tend to go really wide, and they seem to get away from the riders,” Auerbach said.
But Darrell Haire, a retired jockey who is the western regional manager of the Jockeys’ Guild, sided with Solis by citing the jutting rail, and not the lack of banking, as the primary concern with the five-furlong turf setup.
“The banking at Santa Anita is actually more than Del Mar,” said Haire. “It’s going into the turn, [where that corner configuration] is sharp. It causes horses to go to the right when they make it. They can’t negotiate it properly. And the riders have been telling us right along toward the end of the meet that we’ve got to do something about this before something happens.”
Ritvo said that if Santa Anita opts to go with building the new 5 1/2-furlong cut-out that starts on the main track, it will “ease the speed going into that turn.”
Ritvo added that “we’re willing to work with the jocks on whether five-eighths grass races should be run with a temporary rail at all. [And] if we decide not to use the 6 1/2-furlong [downhill course] then we will alleviate [the five-eighths banking problem] by banking that turn. The reason it’s not banked now is because [coming off the 6 1/2-furlong course] you need [it for] the flat crossover.”
Ritvo said that a longer-term solution could include “the flipping of the grass course [so it’s] on the outside [of the dirt track], putting the dirt course on the inside.” He told commissioners that’s not happening any time soon, though.
In the past, the Breeders’ Cup has utilized the downhill 6 1/2-furlong downhill start for turf sprints at Santa Anita. But Craig Fravel, the chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup, explained at Thursday’s meeting that his organization recently committed to five-furlong distances for both he GI Turf Sprint and the GII Juvenile Turf Sprint for November’s championships there.
“To be honest with you, we were unaware of any safety concerns related to five furlongs until now,” Fravel said.
Other items of note at Thursday’s meeting included:
•The advancement, by unanimous vote, of a proposed CHRB rule that would mandate the maximum allowable level of Lasix at 250 mg (half of what’s currently on the books) and would prohibit the use of Lasix in horses from the 2018 foal crop and onward beginning in 2020. This change would codify similar “house rules” language that the CHRB has been approving on a meet-by-meet basis for most of 2019, but it must first pass a 45-day public commentary period before it can be fully adopted.
•Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s lawsuit requesting a restraining order that would allow him to return to training horses at Del Mar, where he has been denied entry privileges for reasons that have not been publicly disclosed, got pushed back by a San Diego County Superior Court judge on Thursday, with a hearing now set for July 26. That court date may or may not resolve Hollendorfer’s specific issue, but the overarching topic is sure to linger in future CHRB meetings. Commissioners and stakeholders debated the murky landscape of exclusion policies at tracks and what, if any, types of hearings owners and trainers are entitled to and what role the CHRB can/should play in those situations.
•For the first time in several months, the CHRB meeting was conducted with zero anti-racing advocates signing up to speak during the board’s public commentary period.