It’s the West Coast Cathedral of racing, as Belmont is to the East Coast and Churchill Downs is to Kentucky.

It has hosted racing legends historic and recent, male and female, from Seabiscuit to California Chrome and Azeri to Zenyatta, since its opening Christmas Day, 1934.

It will host the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Nov. 1–2  for a record tenth time. Tiznow won a second consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classic here in 2001 to help restore hope and buoy a nation in crisis in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers two months earlier.

Now, Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, self-billed as “The Great Race Place,” is itself in crisis.

On Saturday, the 20th horse in only two months suffered a catastrophic breakdown at the iconic racing venue. Four-year-old filly Eskenforadrink suffered fatal injuries during a $16,000 claiming race on a dirt track listed as “sloppy.”

This latest fatality comes after two weeks of intense scrutiny about the track that began with the euthanization of six-year-old Champion Battle of Midway after he shattered his hind pastern during training on Feb. 23. That event was made more upsetting by the fact the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile-winning son of Smart Strike was brought back from retirement following discovery that he was sub-fertile as a sire at WinStar Farm during 2018. He successfully bred with only five of 60 mares. Ironically, the last of those foals, a colt, was born the day after his fatal breakdown.

During the same Feb. 23 training session, another horse suffered a fatal breakdown.

Fatal events have occurred on both the track’s dirt and turf surfaces following a period of intense and unusual rainfall, nearly 12 inches during the time of the fatalities, with more rain predicted for the early part of this week.

Five fatalities have occurred on the turf track while training, eight while training on the dirt track and seven during racing on the dirt track. This is approximately double the number of fatalities suffered during the same period last year.

The setting is gorgeous but the Santa Anita surface is a concern. ©Richard Gross

“One death is too many,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. “We’re going to look at all the circumstances. Weather is a big factor. It doesn’t matter if it’s Battle of Midway or a first-time starter, this is just such an unfortunate circumstance.”

The fatalities and the unusual weather conditions prompted Santa Anita officials to close the track for training early last week to conduct soil testing of the surfaces by University of Kentucky soil expert Mick Peterson. Found to be “100% ready,” the track was reopened for both training and racing.

Saturday’s fatality renews the concern.

This Thursday’s race schedule was cancelled Sunday in anticipation of more heavy rainfall through Wednesday. Those races will become part of an 11-race card scheduled for Friday and hoped-for better weather. The track will remain open daily for training, however.

The concern is complicated by the fact that Santa Anita is the home training and race track to elite trainers and horses, including Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. He presently has two-year-old Male Eclipse Award Champion and early Kentucky Derby favorite Game Winner in training here along with Kentucky Derby hopefuls Roadster and  Improbable, and Kentucky Oaks hopeful Chasing Yesterday. Baffert horses participated in training and racing since the track reopening and over the past weekend with Roadster winning an allowance race.

Hall of Fame Trainer Bob Baffert currently stables several Kentucky Derby and Oaks hopefuls at Santa Anita. ©Richard Gross

Santa Anita is no newer to controversy than to history. In 2012, HBO cancelled the impending second season of the drama series “Luck” for what it termed “safety concerns” after a third horse died during production of the horseracing-cum-gambling dramatic series. Horses had been fatally injured during filming for the pilot episode, as well as for the seventh episode in the series’ first season.

The critically acclaimed drama was a vehicle for high-profile stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, as well as for then-prematurely retired jockey Gary Stevens and popular female rider Chantal Sutherland. At the time, Hoffman attributed the series’ cancellation to the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) protests that followed the third horse fatality.

Santa Anita switched back to a dirt surface in 2010 from its previous Pro-Ride synthetic surface. The installation of synthetic surfaces had been mandated by the California Horse Racing Board in 2006 at a cost of $40 million because they were thought it be safer for horses. This was not the case at Santa Anita, where an unusual number of fatal breakdowns on its synthetic surface prompted the return to natural dirt.

Since the recent fatalities have occurred on both the dirt and turf surfaces, the unusual rainfall is thought to be a significant contributing factor to the track’s current problems. Del Mar, in San Diego, installed synthetic Polytrack in 2007 but reverted to dirt in 2015, ending California’s experiment with synthetic racing surfaces.