Baffert backs under-scrutiny Santa Anita surface ahead of Breeders' Cup
Legendary American trainer Bob Baffert has insisted he has no fears about the integrity of the racing surface at Santa Anita ahead of this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup carnival.
A spike in equine fatalities at the Los Angeles circuit, which saw 30 horses euthanised, prompted the California Horse Board, in conjunction with the track management, to suspend racing for a number of weeks in March to undertake an evaluation of the surface and other possible contributory factors.
Heavy rainfall – more than 20 inches fell in the spring – and a culture of trainers being pressured to populate races were among the issues identified as underpinning the high rate of casualties.
A compacted surface seemed to be one of the most pressing problems, which were chiefly occurring on the main dirt and training tracks, although seven deaths were also recorded during turf racing.
Since Santa Anita reopened after its three-month summer hiatus, rigorous protocols, designed to identify horses which should not be running or training, have been implemented. Over the past month, two horses from 889 starters have suffered fatal injuries, a rate of 0.22 per cent.
That is a small sample size but more satisfactory when viewed in comparison with the national average of 1.68 per 1,000 starts and an average of 2.04 at the venue in 2018.
Speaking at the track on Tuesday morning, Baffert, whose four-strong Breeders’ Cup team is headed by big-race favourite McKinzie, said he had confidence in the surface, which has undergone several changes since the Polytrack experiment was abandoned in 2009.
“I think it is safe,” Baffert said. “It is a different surface to what we had for the last Breeders’ Cup here [in 2016] because they added some different material and changed it, but they have slowed it down trying to make it safer.
Baffert, who has saddled 15 winners at the fixture, also suggested the increased mainstream and social media scrutiny of the sport has contributed to the fervour of some of the public reaction.
“Unfortunately, it is getting reported every time there is an incident," he said. "In the old days people wouldn't have been aware of these issues, but now the public have eyes on everything and go, 'Oh, horses do get hurt out there'.
“It's a new world we live in with social media and everything. The good stuff doesn't get picked up in the same way, but anytime you have any sport that moves, you are going to have injuries. And in our sport, when that happens, you don't want the horses to suffer, so you have to do the humane thing.
“People have an issue with that. It's hard, and you never get used to it. Me, as a trainer, when it happens, it is sickening. It's hard on everybody, from me to the groom. So then, when you read about it in a way that suggests we don't care, it is upsetting.
"But there is no good way to report it. We are getting better dealing with it and I think a lot of trainers and jockeys now are being more conscientious, but it can still happen.
"You can't guarantee something won't happen. You see a basketball player strapped up, with the best shoes, and they still twist ankles. How can that happen? When a horse does that, it's hard for them to recover.”
Get ahead of the game with Get Your Eye In – exclusive Saturday preview content on racingpost.com and the Racing Post mobile app from 2pm on Friday