By Rory Carroll
LOSANGELES (Reuters) – Leading trainers competing at next month’s Breeders’ Cup are confident that Santa Anita will be safe for their horses despite a surge of deaths at the famed Southern California racetrack since December.
Thirty four horses have perished at the Stronach Group-owned venue over the past 11 months with the latest being three-year-old gelding Satchel Paige on Saturday.
Santa Anita earlier this year hired a consultant to study the track surface and the California Horse Racing Board also investigated but the exact cause of the spate of fatalities remains unknown.
Asked by Reuters if he or any of the owners he works for were hesitant to compete at Santa Anita, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said “not really.”
“It was tough on everybody but I really feel that hasn’t even crossed any of my clients’ minds,” he said on a call with reporters on Wednesday.
“We changed some things here for the better. The surface — they are working on that.
“I think it was a wake-up moment for racing. We need to do a better job and I think trainers and everybody involved are being more conscientious than before,” said Baffert, a 15-time winner who has earned a total of $28.8 million (£22.35 million) at the annual, two-day event.
In light of the fatalities, the Stronach Group and state regulators have instituted reforms at the venue including placing strict limits on the use of any pain or anti-inflammatory medication and treatment, which can mask injuries.
Whips will still be permitted at this year’s Breeders’ Cup although a whipping ban has been proposed by the California Racing Board.
“It has been concerning for sure watching from afar on the east coast,” trainer Chad Brown said.
“I’ve been keeping a close eye on it… (but) ultimately I didn’t avoid running any horses at the Breeders’ Cup due to this issue.
“We feel confident in Santa Anita’s management that the track will be safe and I support everything they’ve been doing to try to improve the situation.”
Baffert said he believes the races, which are expected to draw protesters, will put horse racing and Santa Anita in a positive light.
“Everything is going to be good. We’re going to get some good, positive vibes out of this whole thing.”
Some $22 million in prize money will be up for grabs at the Breeders’ Cup world championships on Nov. 1-2.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)