(Dr. Gregory Ferraro / Photo Courtesy of University of California-Davis)

(Omaha Beach wins the G1 Malibu Stakes on the Winter Meet’s Opening Day / Photo Courtesy of Santa Anita)

 

Well, they are off and running at what we are all hoping and praying will be a new and improved Santa Anita Race Track. The “Great Race Place” — which fell into the “Great Red-Face Place” for much of 2019 — is back.

With a bit of fear, mind you. With a lot of trepidation, no doubt. With, at the same time, a great deal of hope from us all that love, treasure, promote, enhance and enable the greatest sport on Earth.

Hope. It is a great word. It is a much greater concept, feeling and mental approach to living life.

Hope. It is one of the reasons we awake each morning, and look for the sun in the Eastern sky with both anticipation and an eager smile.

Hope. It is what brings rainbows to a stormy day, and lifts spirits on a gloomy day’s end. Why else would a horse breeder and owner continue in a game where the odds are so tough and the early morning phone calls are normally so rough?

Hope. It is what lights the end of the tunnel, and draws both moths and humans to a spot better than the one we left. Why else would the always-optimistic bettor, who just lost a tough head-bob on the wire, forget so soon, and line back up at the window for the next race?

Hope. It is what the ole’ hard-boot trainer Herb Stevens used to talk about each and every time we had breakfast at the Keeneland Track Kitchen back in the day. It didn’t matter how many times he told the story. It didn’t matter how many times I heard it. He told it with zest. I hung on each word. “You know, son,” Stevens would start out. “A man never committed suicide if he had a good 2-year-old in the barn.”

He would laugh. I would giggle. Every time. It was the definition of hope. It was — and is — true.

And, that’s how we are going to approach the New Year, and, what we hope, a New Santa Anita.

Hope that the track management team — which became a lightning rod for the entire world of Thoroughbred racing over the past 12 months — can finally muster the courage and spend the dollars necessary to fix all the problems that left so many horses hurt and fatally injured in a wake of turbulent weather and times.

Hope that the track superintendent — who is known to be one of the best in the entire world — will finally have the budget and the freedom to return the racing surface to what it once was, and, perhaps, can be once again.

Hope that the jockey colony — which once consisted of only the world’s best names like Shoemaker, Pincay, McCarron, Delahoussaye and so many others — can adopt and adapt to the new rules governing the use of the riding crop, and delicately balance the fine-line between a full-effort and over-use.

Hope that the trainers — once led by the legendary Charlie Whittingham, the incomparable Ron McAnally, and the forceful Jack Van Berg — can see the merit of change and still treat their horses with the love, care, and passion that the vast majority have done for generations, and continue to do on a daily basis today.

Hope that the fans — who once came in droves to sit and admire one of the most iconic racing venues ever to be created by both God’s own hand and man’s vision — will return to watch, wager and witness one of the greatest rejuvenations in all of sports history. Here’s hoping.

Hope that the likes of Kathy Snow Guillermo — the Senior Vice President of PETA and a cottage-industry organization that has often utilized disgusting and dishonest methods to profit off the misfortune of others — disappear like snowflakes in the desert.

Hope that we can all go — once again — to watch Thoroughbreds do what they were born to do. Race the wind; run down and past their rivals; and sketch their names into our memory banks and their images into the majestic race replays that spin on a continuous loop in our hearts.

On Saturday, the much-maligned racetrack finally kick-started the much-anticipated Winter Meet after suspending action for a couple of days due to the anticipation of some rain in the area.

And, on Saturday, Santa Anita was exactly what we hoped it would be again.

Spectacular.

The horses were as pretty and athletic as the day Alysheba eye-balled the great Ferdinand and they laid down a nose battle from the quarter pole to the finish line.

Beautiful.

The hills were alive with the sound of the bugle, and the whinny of the horse. The yelps of the rider. The cries of the fans.

Thrilling.

Once again, the track glistened as if it was sprinkled with magic dust by Santa and God, themselves. And all of us were able to unwrap the most asked-for gifts of all — safety, soundness, serenity, success.

Sure, it was only one day. But you know what? You can’t get your second win until you get your first. You can’t win it, unless you are in it. And, the walk of 1,000 miles begins with a single footstep.

Old sayings, yes.

New beginnings, we hope.

But there is more than just hope at work these days in California, too. For the first time in a very long time, there are reasons to hope.

And, the biggest of these reasons is Dr. Gregory Ferraro.

Ferraro — a longtime veterinarian, professor, scientist, and lover of all things horse — was recently appointed as the new Chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. The hand-picked choice of California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Ferraro is now the man charged with fixing a very broken industry in the state and a sport that finds themselves in an absolute state of despair.

The job is his, and truth be known, his alone.

And, the job is not for the faint of either heart or soul.

You see…

At no time in the game’s history has anyone walked into a more difficult job, and been asked a more troubling task.

The sport — we must admit — has been in the midst of a California earthquake and shaken to the core. The sport is in the fight for its’ credibility, image, livelihood, survival.

The sport — if it is to persevere — is in the hands of Dr. Gregory Ferraro.

I will be the first to admit, I have never met Dr. Ferraro face-to-face. I have never had the privilege to place my hand in his. I have never sat by his side and talked about his past, his present or his future. Better yet, I have not had the grand opportunity to sit in his audience and talk about the game’s past, the game’s present or the game’s future, either.

But I will be the first to tell you, I don’t think I need to have known Dr. Ferraro long in order to know the man forever.

Recently, we had the chance to talk on the phone.

I was left with several impressions and convictions.

The man is fully compelled to lead the industry in California out of this wilderness and into a more promised land in the future. His has the energy in addition to the mission.

The man has both the practical and theological experience to call on mind and memory to fix what could be wrong.

The man has the integrity to lead without question of personal benefit and motive, or fear of retribution.

The man has the guts to make change where he thinks change is needed and warranted. The man has the intestinal fortitude to resist changes that matter not and are simply window dressings.

Most of all, from what I can tell and feel, the man is fair. To all.

Since taking over at the helm of a rudderless ship hellbent on full sailing into the rocky cliffs of Torrey Pines or the sharp thorns that line Pebble Beach, Dr. Gregory Ferraro has embarked on a journey with a firm grip on the most slippery of slopes.

He has listened to all sides, including the naysayers and combatants.

He has instituted policies that prevent future decisions from being made in secret, or behind closed doors.

He has reduced perceived conflicts of interest.

And, he has led the Board in a series of confrontational meetings with diplomacy and direction of a skilled negotiator.

He has ruffled a few feathers, to be sure. But no one segment of this complex industry can accurately accuse this man of taking sides; or pursuing a course of action that requires only one group to change.

He met with the jockeys and had conversation. Despite the attempts of some — like Santa Anita’s new henchmen Craig Fravel — to completely eliminate the use of the riding crop in the course of a race, Ferraro drafted a compromise that he hopes will help eliminate public outcry and still allow for competitive racing with a newly-developed whip designed on eliminating injury or the sting of hurt.

Change, to be sure. Hopefully, though, meaningful change.

He met with a group of trainers and horsemen to discuss the issues surrounding the use of race-day medications — including the divisive anti-bleeding drug Lasix. Despite once advocating for its’ use and the therapeutic benefits of what Lasix can provide, Ferraro has now changed his professional opinion and his mind. Never an easy thing to do. Especially in the horse business.

Now, Ferraro is embarking on an overall policy that will allow trainers to treat their horses with therapeutic medications in-between races in hopes that the overall scheme of treatment will benefit the horse. First. Foremost. He wants to treat the horse, individually. He wants to make the game better by making the horse better. By putting the horse first. Novel idea, right?

Change, to be sure. Hopefully, a meaningful change.

He has met with the racetrack executives in California. One by one. And, he continues to do so. And, he is demanding more of them, too.

More inspections. More review. More analysis. More improvements to the track surfaces. More investment in safety measures. More consideration of weather and potential impacts on the track. Less demands on trainers to enter horses just to fill races. More scrutiny of racetrack policies and practices.

Change, to be sure. Hopefully, meaningful changes.

To be sure, some of these demands have not been accepted lovingly. Or, without some angst.

Some racetrack executives are mad.

Some trainers are upset.

Some riders are questioning the logic.

But even the most skeptical of the skeptics can’t say — with honesty and conviction — that Dr. Ferraro and his policies have been aimed at just one group; only one segment.

Instead?

They have been aimed at fixing some problems. They have been aimed at solutions. Some of the problems may be perceived. Some of the issues may be real. Yet, the idea here is simple. Some of the changes may have meaningful, long-term results — like the survival of the business.

In just a few days, we all will embark on a New Year — 2020. Funny thing is that number — 2020 — is the same numerical that people associate with perfect eyesight.

It is too soon to look into that future 8-ball and know for sure what may or may not happen in the upcoming 12 months for the future of Thoroughbred racing in California. But it is not too soon to thank Gov. Newsome for having the foresight to select a man who may not have perfect vision, but a man with a vision.

And, it is not too soon to give Dr. Ferraro and his team the time and chance to salvage (first) and save (forever) the horse industry on the West Coast.

Maybe — just maybe — Dr. Ferraro is the perfect choice to lead at this most crucial time. Here’s hoping. And, praying. Here’s hoping — and praying — that both the Governor and the Chairman are successful.

After all, hope is the only reason any of us ever get into the horse business in the first place. And, hope is the reason we stay.