OPINION: Santa Anita Situation Makes Me Sick To My Stomach

My grandfather went by the name of Ira B. McLean, Sr. He was not a wealthy man. Not in money terms. But he had a wealth of knowledge. He was not a big man. Not in physical terms. But he had a heart as big as Goliath. He was not known for talking much. But he was known all over Woodlake, KY, for his word, if not his words. His word meant something.

As a boy, I got to spend a lot of time with him. We would go fishing. We would pick strawberries out of his garden. We would sit on the front porch swing, watching the cars go by. But, on a good day, I got to go with him to the farm and turn out the yearlings.

Loved those days. Loved that man. More than he ever knew. Even though he stood only about 5-foot-3 and weighed about 125 pounds soaking wet, he was so much bigger to me. My giant.

On one of those occasions that I got to spend the day with him, my Paw-Paw told me something that I never, ever forgot. Not to this day. Not ever.

One day, out of the blue, he looked over at me and said:

“You know something, son?” he asked. And, not waiting for an answer, he continued on. “A lot of people use that index finger more than they use the thumb.”

I must have offered a quizzical look in reply, because my Paw-Paw never hesitated.

“You see, when something goes wrong and something bad happens, it’s a whole lot easier to point that index finger at someone else than to use that thumb and point to yourself,” he said, demonstrating what he meant with a thumb curled right into the middle of his tiny chest.

“And, most of the time, we should use the thumb.,” he said. “Most of the time, we should use the thumb.”

You know what?

The folks that run Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, CA. should have known my Paw-Paw.

Belinda Stronach and Frank Stronach and all those jokers that make the decisions at Santa Anita sure could use some down home, country-spun logic – courtesy of my Paw-Paw.

The Jockey Club, PETA, WHOA, Congressman Andy Barr and all those organizations and single-minded persons that have jumped on board and taken full advantage of the misfortune of others and the catastrophic injuries to both horse and horseperson to further their own, self-serving political agendas sure could have used a two-minute sermon from my Paw-Paw.

In short?

They should use the thumb.

Instead, they have used the index finger. In every case. In every direction. In every way. Point here. Point there. Point to this. Point to that. But, God forbid, never take the blame. Never admit blame. Deny. Deny. Deny.

To be honest? And, that’s a strange word to utilize in these circumstances, because honesty, it seems, is in real short supply in most of our world these days.

It is shameful.

But it’s more than that.

It is sickening.

To the stomach.

Ever since it became very obvious that there was a serious issue with racing at Santa Anita – which, ironically enough, goes by the slogan “The Great Race Place” and where there has been 22 horses lose their lives since Dec. 26 — there has been one consistent chorus from the chorus of Santa Anita singers.

“It’s not our fault.”

Oh, let us count the ways…

First, Santa Anita officials said it was God’s fault and pointed to the heavens.

Too much rain, they said. Gully washers caused the problem. The drought we can handle. But come on God, don’t you know how to regulate the sprinkler system up there?

Didn’t have anything to do with the track maintenance during those torrential rains, mind you. Didn’t have anything to do with the fact that the track maintenance crew floated the track and sealed it, when – perhaps, maybe — it would have been better to just cancel racing? Didn’t have anything to do with that?

Come on God. You know you did it. Right?

But when the rains stopped, the horses kept falling. Suddenly, Santa Anita pivoted.  When another group of horses collapsed, including the great Battle of Midway, and the storm clouds of bad PR were gathering, Santa Anita still didn’t take the blame.

Hell no. The index finger was just warming up like a relief pitcher in the bullpen. This time, Santa Anita finally reached out and brought back Dennis Moore, the best trackman to ever take care of the Santa Anita sod and dirt.

Yep, the same Dennis Moore who used to be the track superintendent that was responsible for the welfare of the surface until he mysteriously “retired” from his duties at Santa Anita at the end of 2018.

Yep, the same Dennis Moore who still works for Del Mar, in Southern California, and didn’t “retire” from that job. The same Dennis Moore who was recently hired by Arizona Downs and was asked to install a new racing surface at the remodeled facility. He started on that job on Jan. 3, with hopes of having the new track surface ready for racing this May. Sound like a man “retiring?”

Yep, the same Dennis Moore who is known worldwide for his credibility and his ability.

Yet, instead of giving the man a shovel and carte blanche, like the good folks at Arizona Downs did, Santa Anita gave the man a week.

Instead of calling off this meet; digging up this racetrack; and starting from scratch, to ensure every horse’s safety is more important than the almighty dollar, Santa Anita gave a press conference.

Instead, of calling an audible and allowing the horses to move to another jurisdiction to race the rest of the Spring Meet, Santa Anita announced that the racetrack was safe. And, sound. And, ready for racing. After all, Dennis Moore walked over it. Had to be right, right?

You be the judge.

Within days another excuse had to be found. Another horse had fallen.

Index finger time.

This time, the PR team cranked up a couple of doozies.

To cure the problems, Santa Anita proposed to end race day medications and install heavy regulations on how and when a rider could and should use a whip.

What?

Are you frigging kidding me? Lasix and riding crops?

Where in the hell did this come from? What PR expert pulled those out of the horse’s ass? Those excuses are so preposterous, mind-boggling, and totally outlandish that if the situation wasn’t so serious that it would be laughing stock.

Never mind that trainers and veterinarians have been using therapeutic race-day medication in this country for years without this unprecedented rated of catastrophic results and injuries.

Never mind that riders in every other racing jurisdiction in this country carry and use whips and crops for both the safety of navigation and the welfare of the sport for both horse and man.

Never mind that Aqueduct doesn’t have this problem. Never mind that the Fair Grounds didn’t and Oaklawn isn’t having these problems. Never mind that Tampa Bay and Turfway Park aren’t experiencing these same issues. Never mind that Stronach’s lynchpin racetrack – Gulfstream Park – is still allowing race day mediation and the use of whips and crops without the same issues.

Most of all, never mind that this terrible situation demands a scientific, systematic, calculated, and measured approach. The experts need to convene, and, one by one, eliminate potential sources for the issues. The experts need the time to test, monitor and decipher. The experts need to develop a course of action to remedy – based on science. Not ridiculous accusations and unfounded theories.

But…There’s always the “but,” right?

Santa Anita has chosen a different approach; a different route. They have chosen — diversion. Apparently, Santa Anita decided it needed the world to look away, just as we all do when a horse is injured. Apparently, Santa Anita chose to point that finger to and at.

So, it was Lasix. Trainers. And racetrack veterinarians. So, it was jockeys.

And, when it was becoming more and more obvious that the world was not buying what Santa Anita’s mad scientists were selling, the PR machine rung up another boogey man, hidden behind Door #3.

Oh yeah, all of this was Kentucky’s fault, too. After all, those Kentucky breeders and sales agents have been giving their young horses bisphosphonates so that their youngsters look prettier; grow bigger and stronger; and seller higher.

After all, the sales companies – like Keeneland, Fasig-Tipton, Ocala Breeders’ and others – have not even been testing for this drug, which is supposed to build bone and cartilage and make horses bigger, stronger, faster.  And, according to the manufactures, is not supposed to be given to any horse under the age of 4.

That had to be the reason, too. Right?

Well, there’s just a little problem with this blame game, too. Are we supposed to believe that all the horses in the world improperly treated with this drug ended up at one track, and one track only – Santa Anita?

And, if not, then why are other racing jurisdictions – around the globe – not having the same issues at the same alarming rate of occurrence?

I’m not saying I endorse the use of biosphosphonates. Far from it. I think they should be outlawed. Altogether. And, tests should be administered to assure that no horse is ever treated with this medication.

But to suggest that the current state of affairs at Santa Anita is being caused by this medication is as ludicrous as the jockey’s using whips and riding crops.

This current decay of racing at Santa Anita is deplorable. And, so is the behavior of the racetrack’s management and ownership.  To be blunt, the excuses and finger pointing is sickening. To the stomach.

But the behavior of some of the Thoroughbred’s top industry groups – such as The Jockey Club – is equally disgusting.

For decades, the pious members of this “Club” have worked to eliminate therapeutic medications in the Thoroughbred industry. Now, the “Club” has seized this industry-wide PR issue and has looked at it as an opportunity. Never mind that horse owners are suffering heartache and heartbreak. Never mind that medication issues may or may not have anything to do with the current state of affairs. Never mind logic and science. It’s time to foster and push its’ political agenda, once again.

As the official registrar of the industry, all owners are forced to pay The Jockey Club money to register our horses; name our horses. And, they take that money – all our money — and push a political agenda developed by a choice few – with no regard or condolences for horse owners who have suffered loss.

Instead of the finger pointing, which has to be getting quite tiresome, why not utilize this time to do some things that this industry has a hard time doing.

Why not do the right thing?

Why not do the only thing?

Why don’t you hit the pause button?

Why don’t you cancel the remainder of this race meeting? Why don’t you allow another jurisdiction run the dates. Why don’t you peel up this racetrack and start over? Why don’t you see if this same group of horses have issues anywhere else?

Why don’t you consider doing a scientific study – led by a team of credible, un-biased professionals – to examine ALL the potential factors?

Why don’t you systematically eliminate the issues that “The Team” determines to be unrelated?

And, then – and only then, no matter how long it takes – issue a scientific finding on what may be causing the current debacle, and develop a list of credible ways to address and fix.

Maybe – just maybe — that scientific data will be helpful in crafting industry-wide policies and race day rules based on facts – not simple opinions from simple people.

Maybe that systematic approach will render universal guidelines that all states; all racetracks, and all horsemen and horsewomen can accept, agree with; and adopt – and not knee-jerk reactions that are created to simply confuse, cover-up and misdirect.

Maybe, for once, the rich and powerful will understand that transparency is not a bad thing. And, that small owners – who may only have a horse or two – should have the same rights as the deity that sit on the Board of “The Jockey Club.”

Maybe Santa Anita can use the thumb, instead of finger point at somebody else; at something else; at some bogus boogey man.

Maybe then we can all – collectively – move forward in a way to save, promote and enhance the greatest sport in the whole wide world.

Maybe that’s a better approach than climbing into bed with PETA, and other groups that have publicly and proudly announced – on many occasions – that their only mission is to end the sport of horse racing.

Maybe?

Just maybe?

I certainly thing the health of the horses and the health of the industry and the health of the sports warrants that consideration. Don’t you?

Well, considering the fact that we are dealing with this current Santa Anita ownership team — where the patriarch, Frank Stronach, is already suing his daughter, Belinda Stronach, over mismanagement of the company, and the son/brother, Andy, is suing his sister, as well?

Well, I am afraid that this group of Santa Anita officials – along with their bully-boy allies – will give the industry another finger instead.

And, it isn’t either the thumb or the index finger.

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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