(Bellafina and assistant trainer Carlos Santamaria / Photo by Holly M. Smith)
According to multiple sources, “The Pressbox” has learned that over the weekend a high-ranking official with Santa Anita called for and held a meeting with several trainers that house, train and race horses at the historic, yet troubled racetrack located in Arcadia, CA.
We have been told, and we have confirmed, that the message that was delivered was very direct in both tone and definition. In summary, and while we are paraphrasing here, the edict was clear:
If there are any more catastrophic injuries that occur at Santa Anita in the next few days, Governor Gavin Newsom may be prepared to ask the California Horse Racing Board to immediately suspend the racetrack’s license and cancel all upcoming races until a thorough investigation is conducted into the on-going situation.
According to our sources, that information was delivered by Aidan Butler — The Stronach Group’s chief strategy officer and acting executive director of California Racing Operations. Butler, who is 43 years old, joined the organization in 2018, and soon was transferred to the operation’s team at Santa Anita this Spring when safety issues evolved and dissolved into a national emergency.
In an interview with “The Thoroughbred Daily News” reporter Dan Ross and in a story published online Sept. 18, 2019, Butler, an attorney, described himself as a “fixer.” He is quoted as saying, “That’s what I do. I come in and look at problems and try to make a more modern approach to them.”
Butler went on to say:
“I’m overseeing everything in California.”
As most know by now, everything in Arcadia, California is a mess right now.
A real mess.
And, as most of you know by now, young Mr. Aidan Butler has his hands full.
The most recent evidence came last Saturday — the 2nd day of Santa Anita’s Fall Race Meet. A meet that is supposed to last 23 days in total. A Meet that is supposed to include the Breeders’ Cup on the first weekend in November.
It was on Saturday that Emtech — a horse claimed and trained by Steve Knapp — sustained a major injury, and, subsequently, was euthanized.
It was the next day — on Sunday — that Butler met with some trainers.
And, on Tuesday, just a day ago, “The Pressbox” confirmed that some members of the California Horse Racing Board were either summoned or volunteered to travel to Sacramento to meet either with the Governor, himself, and/or some of his top officials.
The matter of those discussons?
What to do about the current situation at Santa Anita.
What can be done?
What should be done?
When should it be done?
That meeting went long into the day on Tuesday, according to our sources. Most of the details of those conversations are being highly protected and are being kept very confidential, at this point.
According to our sources, there was no confirmation that the Governor either said or delivered an “ultimatum” to anyone at Santa Anita.
Yet, it is safe to say that those discussions were not about the tea tariffs imposed on China.
And, no matter what the most immediate decisions that will come out of those discussions will be, there could be significant repercussions for the racetrack; and the upcoming Breeders’ Cup — the World Championship event for the entire industry.
It was back in the summer — on June 27, to be exact — that the Breeders’ Cup Board of Directors met in Lexington, KY and held a meeting that lasted nearly the entire day. After extensive discussions, and many hours of work, the Breeders’ Cup exited with a decision and a commitment:
To keep the 2019 event at Santa Anita on Nov. 1, and Nov. 2. It would be the 10th time that the track would be host to the Championships in the 36-year history of the event.
At the time, the Breeders’ Cup announced that the decision to stay at Santa Anita was “unanimous.” Took all day, mind you. But it was “unanimous.”
Breeders’ Cup President and CEO Craig Fravel said, at the time:
“Foremost among the core values of the Breeders’ Cup are the safety and integrity of the competition, and we hold ourselves, our host sites, and our competitors to the highest standards of both. It is clear that meaningful and effective reforms and best practices have been implemented in recent months at Santa Anita through the collective efforts of The Stronach Group, the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the California Thoroughbred Trainers, and the California Horse Racing Board. We fully embrace those reforms and will devote our time and energy in the coming months to further advance those efforts. We look forward to showing the world the best in Thoroughbred racing at one of its finest venues.”
Since then, though, two major developments have occurred.
On Sept. 13, it was announced that Fravel — who apparently lobbied hard to keep the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita — will be leaving his current position immediately after this year’s Championship event is concluded, and will be taking a job as the Chief Executive of Racing Operations at…?
Drum roll, please…
Then, on Sept. 28, just two weeks after the Fravel announcement and just the second day into the new meet, a horse suffers a catastrophic injury. And, it must be noted, that no horse sustained that kind of devastating injury during the entire summer at either Del Mar or Los Alamitos.
“The Pressbox” has reached out to The Breeders’ Cup and spokesperson Jim Gluckson to see if the current administration and the Board of Directors are aware of Butler’s comments to the trainers, or aware of the meeting held in Sacramento on Tuesday.
Is, in fact, the Governor of California considering a shutdown?
We sent an email to the Breeders’ Cup at 10:24 a.m. ET this morning — Wednesday, Oct. 2.
In addition, “The Pressbox” attempted to contact some of the members of the Breeders’ Cup Board, individually, to see if they had been briefed on the current situation. We made calls on both Tuesday, Oct. 1 and Wednesday, Oct. 2.
Third, “The Pressbox” wanted to know if there is, indeed, a stoppage of racing at Santa Anita, does the Breeders’ Cup have a contingency plan in place to move this year’s event — which is now just a month away — to another location.
We submitted that question, as well, in writing to Breeders’ Cup officials, via email.
At 5:59 p.m. ET, we got this response from the Breeders’ Cup Limited, in response to my email and delivered by email:
“We cannot comment on a conversation of which we were not a part, nor speculate on hypothetical scenarios. The Breeders’ Cup fully supports the reforms The Stronach Group and Santa Anita have implemented after working tirelessly with state regulators and leading industry experts. In addition to the changes undertaken by Santa Anita, the 2019 Breeders’ Cup will feature the most up-to-date medication practices, testing protocols, equine security program, veterinary exams, injury management protocols and racing surface testing.”
By all appearances sake, at least for the time being, the Breeders’ Cup seems determined to stay at Santa Anita.
Now, back to your regular programming.
Just for the record, we have confirmed that other major sports leagues do have “contingency plans” in place to move events in case of an emergency situation. According to one high-ranking official with a Major League Baseball franchise, the MLB has protocols in place to move regular season games, in case of a situation like this.
On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit at 5:04 p.m. before Game 3 of the World Series at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The Series was postponed until play resumed on Oct. 27. The Series concluded the next day.
Now, it will be interesting to see if the Breeders’ Cup has such a plan, in the case it may needed.
If so, where would the Breeders’ Cup go? And, shouldn’t this have been part of the discussion on June 27, and part of the “Master Plan” going forward?
The world of Thoroughbred racing awaits.