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A sunny sky in Saratoga; a cloud over racing

A sunny sky in Saratoga; a cloud over racing

Optimism abounds as spring training begins, but spike in horse deaths in California has the sport on edge
A sunny sky in Saratoga; a cloud over racing
Thoroughbred spring training began on the Oklahoma Training Track in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday morning.

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- There's a wooden sign nailed over the door to trainer Richard "Kerry" Metivier's office that reads "Faith Makes All Things Possible," a worthy sentiment at 6:30 Wednesday morning, opening day of spring training for Thoroughbreds in Saratoga.

They try to keep things optimistic around here.

Inside on the wall over his desk is a framed copy of the Kramer portrait from an episode of "Seinfeld" that Metivier bought at a garage sale near the Fasig-Tipton auction pavilion, where the average price of a yearling last summer was $369,376.

"I just had to have it, so I asked the guy, 'How much?' and he said, 'I don't know ... a dollar?'" Metivier said with a laugh. "He got his dollar."

They try to keep things light around here.

The sky was gorgeous blue, the air crisp and the frost short-lived. With only a few dozen horses on the grounds that will be home to a few thousand by July, the carefully groomed dirt on the Oklahoma training track was dotted with just a couple lines of hoofprints. Everything seemed possible in anticipation of the 2019 Saratoga racing meet, three months ahead.

Lately, there are more than the usual reasons to not be optimistic about the future of the sport of horse racing, though, even as Saratoga continues to burnish its image as a Shangri-La seemingly impervious to the many meaningful ways in which the sport is declining.

A total of 23 dead horses at Santa Anita Park in California since Dec. 26,  has weighed heavily on that track, but also has become a burden on the sport itself, based on the higher level of interest from people in power who otherwise wouldn't be paying attention, much less make calls to action.

People like U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein and California Governor Gavin Newsom, both of whom have been asking why these breakdowns happened and why these horses had to die. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County District Attorney announced the formation of a task force to see if "unlawful conduct or conditions affected the welfare and safety of horses at Santa Anita Park."

I'm guessing they won't find anything that rises to the level of illegality, but district attorneys don't just assemble task forces for the fun of it. 

As difficult -- impossible? -- as it is to imagine racing being banned in the U.S., the most recent spasm of horse deaths suggests it could happen just based on the usual localized response/reaction that may provide temporary relief, but doesn't look like a long-term solution, as opposed to proactive measures to improve the sport and its image.

For how much longer will that be an appropriate answer?

Minus a central body to govern racing jurisdictions in the 38 states where the sport is legal and assemble a universal set of rules, there's at least one sign that some are seeing the writing on the wall. According to a Daily Racing Form article by Matt Hegarty on Tuesday, the New York Racing Association, Churchill Downs and Keeneland are talking to each other about phasing in some of the measures that Santa Anita adopted in the wake of its catastrophic start to 2019.

I'm not convinced that whip usage and raceday administration of the diuretic Lasix, two areas of Santa Anita's policy change, had much to do with the breakdowns there. But if the biggest players in the sport are trying to collaborate and get in front of the problems, that seems like a step toward other measures that could protect the horses and demonstrate to people that it matters.

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and several other prominent tracks, including Pimlico in Maryland, didn't do the sport any favors by kowtowing to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and their demands. Upon Santa Anita announcing reforms, PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo issued a statement that included this nugget: "Racing must go the way of the animal circus, but this will eliminate some of the misery on the way out."

Some ally.

Another bad sign for the sport that is more under the radar came in November, when 69 percent of Florida voters chose to ban greyhound racing, eliminating 11 of the 17 dog tracks in the country.

The multi-billion-dollar Thoroughbred industry may be in a too-big-to-fail category that doesn't remotely include greyhound racing. Still, the push for the Florida amendment may have set a precedent that anti-horse racing activists could follow.

As long as the sport exists, horses are going to get hurt, and some will break down to a point where they can't be saved.

New York weathered a rash of breakdowns at Aqueduct in 2012 and another at Saratoga in 2017. But if you think the spotlight is harsh on Santa Anita now ...

"I hate to say it, but this is going to be a very important year for Saratoga," Metivier said. "And it's going to have to be watched very closely, and [needs to] not be reactionary. You need proaction.

"A couple of breakdowns in the first few days is going to wreck the meet. It's going to wreck racing, because everyone's looking."

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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