Track at Santa Anita Park
The track at Santa Anita Park. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Santa Anita Park concluded its winter/spring meet Sunday amid a protest calling for an end to horse racing in California after the deaths of 30 horses at the track during the past six months.

The late morning protest was organized by Horseracing Wrongs — a New York-based group that advocates for a nationwide ban on the sport.

The event was scheduled before American Currency became the 30th horse to die at the Arcadia track since the meet began Dec. 26.

Santa Anita averaged about 50 horse deaths yearly between 2008 and 2018, according to the California Horse Racing Board.

Track workers have said shutting down the industry would lead to thousands of job losses.

American Currency — a 4-year-old gelding — suffered a leg injury Saturday morning while exercising on Santa Anita’s training track and was euthanized, according to Mike Marten, the horse racing board’s public information officer.

The ill-fated thoroughbred was owned and trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, a horse racing Hall of Famer who was banned from Santa Anita later in the day by Santa Anita’s owner, The Stronach Group.

Hollendorfer already had lost three horses at Santa Anita this season and two at Golden Gates Field, another park owned by The Stronach Group, and received heavy criticism in a Friday CNN story, which reported that the CHRB was investigating the role of trainers in some of the 30 deaths.

“Individuals who do not embrace the new rules and safety measures that put horse and rider safety above all else, will have no place at any Stronach Group racetrack,” a company statement said. “We regret that Mr. Hollendorfer’s record in recent months at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields has become increasingly challenging and does not match the level of safety and accountability we demand. Effective immediately, Mr. Hollendorfer is no longer welcome to stable, race or train his horses at any of our facilities.”

At least one Southland racetrack, however, is reaching out in support of Hollendorfer following his forced exit from Santa Anita.

Ed Allred, chairman and owner of Orange County’s Los Alamitos Race Course, said in a statement: “Los Alamitos will gladly provide stalls to Jerry Hollendorfer, a Hall of Fame trainer and an unexcelled horseman. Unless forbidden by the (racing board), we intend to permit entries from Hollendorfer.

“We do not feel Hollendorfer should be a scapegoat for a problem which derives from a number of factors,” Allred said.

Hollendorfer told horse-racing journalist Ray Paulick — the first to report Saturday’s death — that American Currency was scratched from a race last week because he got sick.

“You have to wait a certain amount of days before you can work them. We turned in our slip to work him today and when he was starting off he took a bad step,” the trainer said. “I had gone over him thoroughly like we do every horse every day. He jogged on the road and jogged sound. As much as I’m involved, every time we lose a horse, it hurts deeply. The rest of the guys on the racetrack feel that way, too.”

Hollendorfer was said to be exploring his options for moving his horses in California, who number about 100.

“I thought the ruling was extreme and I don’t really think I’ve done anything wrong, but I would be willing to step away from racing for a while,” he said. “I don’t want to.”

At the direction of Gov. Gavin Newsom, Santa Anita and the CHRB recently created a “safety review team” that evaluates all horses at the track. The five-member panel of veterinarians and stewards has the authority to scratch a horse from a race if even one panelist questions the animal’s fitness.

However, since American Currency was not entered in any races this weekend, he was not reviewed by the panel, according to Marten, who said the group rejected 38 horses entered to run in the final six programs at Santa Anita.

Marten said the CHRB panel reconvened Saturday morning and “recommended that the Board of Stewards at Santa Anita order the scratch (withdrawal) of the four horses trained by Hollendorfer that were entered to run Saturday and Sunday, the final two days of the Santa Anita meet.

The stewards then scratched the horses Nightingale (7th race Saturday), Dueling (9th race Saturday), Golden Star Lady (4th race Sunday), and Sneaking Out (6th race Sunday).”

Horseracing Wrongs said Hollendorfer was being used as a scapegoat for the crisis.

“Because American Currency is the fourth horse trained by Jerry Hollendorfer to die at SA, and coming as it has the morning after CNN ran a decidedly negative piece with the Hall of Famer Hollendorfer as its focus, racing has an easy villain,” the group said Saturday. “… This, of course, is just the latest distraction (rain, Lasix) advanced by an increasingly desperate industry. Horseracing kills horses — that’s all you need to know.”

People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals, however, praised the move.

“Banning the infamous Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer from all Stronach tracks sends a message to every sleazy trainer that if your horses drop like flies, you will drop with them,” a PETA statement said. “Other trainers with multiple violations and the blood of dead horses on their hands should go the same way, pronto.

According to the CNN report, Hollendorfer has been sanctioned 19 times by the CHRB since 2006, for overmedication or use of illicit medications on horses.

He told Paulick that he was “appalled” by the report, which included criticism from Jim Cassidy, president of California Thoroughbred Trainers.

“I never thought people thought of me that way,” Hollendorfer said.

In April, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced the creation of a task force to investigate the deaths of the horses at the track. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, both have called for racing to be suspended at the track until the deaths can be fully investigated.

Racing was halted at the track for most of March while examinations were conducted on the track. Races resumed April 4 after the state horse racing board approved a series of safety measures, and Santa Anita officials announced a series of new measures to help bolster the safety of horses at the track.

The new rules include restrictions on certain medications, requiring trainers to get permission in advance before putting a horse through a workout and investing in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre- existing conditions.

On June 9, responding to the 28th death of the season, the CHRB recommended the facility suspend racing for its final two weekends.

Track officials declined, however, and hours later Truffalino, a 3- year-old filly, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack during a race conducted in temperatures reaching into the upper 90s.

Under current law, the CHRB does not have the authority to suspend a race meet or remove race dates from a current race meet without the approval of the race track operator or without holding a public meeting with 10 days public notice.

“The Chairman, Vice Chairman and the Executive Director recommended to Santa Anita management they suspend racing for the seven remaining race days but that they allow horses to continue to train during that time period.

That was designed to provide the industry more time to fully implement announced safety initiatives and perhaps additional ones.

“It is our understanding that Santa Anita management, after consultation with certain other industry stakeholders, believes that for a variety of reasons, the future of California racing is best served by continuing to race,” the CHRB said.

The board still had time to halt Santa Anita’s final weekend of racing with the required 10 days notice, but opted against it.

Following the conclusion of Sunday’s races, Santa Anita will remain open until mid-July for horses training for races at other tracks, Santa Anita publicity director Mike Willman told City News Service.

Santa Anita’s autumn meet is scheduled to begin Sept. 27.

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.