Hollendorfer ban punctuates rough Santa Anita season

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Twelve horses start the final race Sunday of a troubled 2018-19 season at Santa Anita. (Ron Flatter photo).

Arcadia, Calif.

 

Rosie Ybarra took it all in from the window at Clockers’ Corner where she serves free coffee every morning until 8 o’clock.

 

“Let’s just get through today,” she said.

 

It has been a long 180 days here at Santa Anita, where 30 horses were euthanized after suffering major injuries on the racetrack. And one Hall of Fame trainer was told Saturday that he was no longer welcome.

 

“We didn’t break any rules,” Jerry Hollendorfer told “Track Talk” host Felix Taverna on his wsRadio.com show Sunday. “But you always feel bad when you’re the target and something goes wrong in your barn.”

 

Hollenforder’s gelding American Currency broke down Saturday morning on the inner training track and became the most recent casualty here since the meet began Dec. 26 – and the fourth from his barn. Hollendorfer was then summoned to the office of track boss Tim Ritvo and told that he was banned from all racecourses owned by The Stronach Group. He was told that he had 72 hours to get himself and his more than 100 horses out of the barns at Santa Anita and up north at Golden Gate Fields.

 

“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,” track management said in a written statement sent to the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

 

So now the tragic season of 2018-19 at Santa Anita has a poster child. A villain.

 

A scapegoat?

 

“I don’t know,” Hollendorfer told Taverna. “You’d have to ask management that. We can only do the best that we can do, and that’s what we’re going to do. If we’re good enough it’ll work out.”

 

What management did not say in its statement was specifically what rules or safety measures that Hollendorfer violated or how long his ban will last. And management – Ritvo, Belinda Stronach or anyone else – was not talking about it Sunday.

 

So what happens now – both for Hollendorfer and for Santa Anita? The answers lie in a vast, gray area. And with a desperate want for a simple answer, this murky shade of gray is not what anyone is looking for. Not horse racing and its advocates. Not animal-rights activists. Not bettors who would like to exhibit some faith in the product in which they are investing. And certainly not those who have strong opinions about Hollendorfer.

 

“Very sad,” said Richard Mandella, like Hollendorfer a Hall of Fame trainer. “Jerry’s a great trainer, no question about it. But there may be more behind the scenes than we know.”

 

That thought was echoed in some whispers around Clocker’s Corner. A couple racing professionals from the barns here suggested that while bad luck caught up with Hollendorfer, so did his penchant for pushing his horses hard. Maybe too hard.

 

Maybe.

 

But as quickly as those suggestions were made, so was the contention that Hollendorfer should not suddenly have to change the way that he has done business in his 40 years training horses. Horses that have started 33,522 times with 7,617 victories, a record that landed him in the Hall of Fame.

 

“I’ve started a lot of horses in my career,” Hollendorfer told Taverna. “But the facts are the facts. They don’t want me here. So I have to go somewhere else.”

 

Somewhere else could be the New York Racing Association, which confirmed Sunday that Hollendorfer is still welcome this summer at Belmont Park and Saratoga. It could mean Del Mar, which is expected to decide this week whether to allow him to come for the start of racing next month. And it could mean Los Alamitos, where racing starts next week and where owner Ed Allred said “we do not feel he should be a scapegoat for a problem which derives from a number of factors.”

 

The Hollendorfer bombshell diverted attention from the issue at hand since the final days of 2018, and that is the spike in racehorse breakdowns – Hollendorfer’s and the other 26 -  and in turn the perception that Santa Anita has turned into an equine death trap. So much so that on a recent episode of his podcast, Tony Kornheiser took note of the spike in deaths on Mount Everest, calling it “the Santa Anita of mountain climbing.”

 

“I don’t know what brought so much of this negativity from the media,” Mandella told VSiN. “I wish I had a good suggestion of how we pull out of this situation. Trying to get people back to reality is a mission we all need to work on. Naturally nobody wants to see a horse die, but you have to be a realist. When you put a couple thousand horses and God’s gift onto a farm or out on the range, some are going to die or get hurt. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

 

Nevertheless, the perception is out there. And it may be enough to compel the board of directors of the Breeders’ Cup to move the Nov. 1 and 2 championships from here to Churchill Downs. The board meets Thursday behind closed doors in Lexington, Ky.

 

“It’s a little bit late in the game to be moving or changing,” Mandella said. “I would say that it’s a doubtful scenario.”

 

Others beg to differ, pointing out that nine of the 14 the Breeders’ Cup directors come from Kentucky.

 

Whatever the case, Sunday afternoon’s 10th and final race brought a figurative yet no less noticeable sigh of relief. The local and national TV news hounds will find other shiny objects to attract their gaze. The two dozen or so protesters who held signs Sunday afternoon on Huntington Drive will go back to whatever their regular business may be. And when training is done here in nearly three weeks (yes, that dreaded number could yet go up), trainers and jockeys and grooms and hot walkers and, yes, horses will head to Del Mar.

 

But even as this chapter ends, the book does not. The fall meet is scheduled to start here Sept. 27. Will they tear up the track in the next three months and rebuild it from below the ground up? Will they add more safety protocols? Will they let Hollendorfer back in?

 

A Santa Anita spokesman said that while no one in management would be fielding questions Sunday, a “comprehensive statement” would be coming by Tuesday, coincidentally the day that Hollendorfer is due to be out of the barns here. It will no doubt be one more broadside for the Breeders’ Cup board to absorb.

 

But no matter what is said this week, and no matter whether the Breeders’ Cup takes its ball and bat to Kentucky this fall, the prevailing thought is the one that was echoed by trainer Bob Baffert, when he said Sunday morning, “Let’s turn the page.”

 

It was a sentiment that, before 8 o’clock, came with a free cup of coffee.

 

Ron Flatter’s racing column appears daily during Royal Ascot. It is normally posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The current edition features trainer Doug O’Neill talking about the ups and downs of a trying but successful season at Santa Anita. SiriusXM FC’s Tommy Smyth with a “Y” shares some betting stories, including his simple strategy for wagering on the horses. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher.

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