March 6 (UPI) -- Santa Anita Park officials, facing a rash of horse fatalities, have canceled racing at least through Sunday -- a decision that scrambles plans for some Kentucky Derby contenders.
Twenty-one horses have suffered fatal injuries while training or racing since the current race meeting opened Dec. 16 at the Arcadia, Calif., park. Officials closed the dirt track Feb. 26 and 27 to evaluate conditions, but no anomalies were found and activity was resumed.
The 21st fatality occurred Tuesday morning. The decision to suspend racing training was reported first by Daily Racing Form.
"The safety, health and welfare of the horses and jockeys is our top priority," Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, said in the press release. "While we are confident further testing will confirm the soundness of the track, the decision to close is the right thing to do at this time."
Southern California has endured unusually heavy rain through the first two months of the year, posing unprecedented track-maintenance issues.
The shutdown affects one of Santa Anita's most important days. Saturday's program was to have included the $500,000 Grade I Santa Anita Handicap for older horses and the $500,000 Grade II San Felipe for 3-year-olds. The latter is a key prep race for the Santa Anita Derby, itself one of the most important stepping stones to the Kentucky Derby.
The decision, while widely praised as putting the safety of horses paramount, leaves Southern California Kentucky Derby hopefuls in a bind. The situation might not have been quite as pressing years ago, when 3-year-olds typically had multiple starts before running at Churchill Downs. Now, two carefully slotted preps often are deemed sufficient.
Case in point: Trainer Bob Baffert's Game Winner and Improbable, two of the leading Kentucky Derby candidates, were to have made their 2019 debuts in the San Felipe with, all being well, just one more start before the Run for the Roses. Game Winner, the 2018 juvenile champion, is No. 3 on the Derby leaderboard and Improbable is tied for the No. 12 spot.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer is in the same boat with Instagrand, an Into Mischief colt who has not raced since winning the Grade II Best Pal at Del Mar in August, Gunmetal Gray, who already has two starts this season, and Galilean, who has one outing.
Even if the San Felipe is rescheduled quickly and owners are willing to run over the track, the delay would shorten the interval between that race and a final Kentucky Derby prep. The Santa Anita Derby is scheduled for April 6.
Potential options for owners and trainers willing to ship their horses are the Rebel at Oaklawn Park on March 16, the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 23 and the Sunland Derby in New Mexico on March 24.
Moving horses to those races could lead to congestion for trainers such as Baffert, who also has Mucho Gusto and Roadster on the Road to the Roses and likely would prefer to keep them apart for at least one more race. Organizing last-minute transportation would be complicated and expensive.