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Santa Anita makes plans to race when stay-at-home order lifts

Letter to stakeholders recommends being ready for May 15

Southern California horse racing fans got the best news they’ve received in weeks Wednesday when a letter signed by Santa Anita executive Aidan Butler surfaced that instructed horsemen to be ready to resume racing May 15.

The letter, sent to the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the California Thoroughbred Trainers and the Jockeys’ Guild, said in part: “Santa Anita Park will be issuing a condition book on Thursday, April 30, targeting May 15 for the resumption of live racing under strict protocols, including the exclusion of spectators.”

May 15 is the day Los Angeles County’s stay-at-home order could be lifted. The letter is a heads-up to horsemen to be ready in case Santa Anita is given the go-ahead by the L.A. County Health Department to resume racing after it was shut down March 27 because of COVID-19.

“From what I know, from what I’m seeing in the media about things getting better regarding (COVID-19), I’m hopeful that we may be able to race,” Butler, The Stronach Group’s chief strategy officer and acting executive director of California racing operations, told the Southern California Newspaper Group. “We’ll (still) need approval from the health department.”

Santa Anita management presented a plan to Kathryn Barger, chair of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, and the L.A. County Health Department on April 16 that outlined the track operating under strict safety and social-distancing protocols.

In Santa Anita’s letter to horsemen, management emphasized that the track could only reopen May 15 if the county’s stay-at-home order is lifted.

“You can’t work in horse racing for 20 years if you’re not optimistic,” TOC president Greg Avioli said during a phone interview when asked if he’s hopeful racing will resume in mid-May. “I am confident that we will be racing soon, (but) I can’t guarantee what date L.A. County decides.

“I am extremely confident you’re going to see racing in the near future.”

All industry officials are concerned for the backstretch workers at Santa Anita, who are increasingly hurt the longer racing is suspended at the Arcadia track. They depend on the money bet on live racing for their health care and housing.

“I’ve seen the plan that Santa Anita has presented and I’m confident that racing can be conducted safely without spectators,” Avioli said. “I’m also aware of the significant financial cost that the horse racing industry is struggling with without live racing in California. It’s decreasing revenue for core, critical programs.

“As an industry, we have demonstrated throughout the country our ability to run safely through the virus without spectators. It’s not just with what’s happening in Florida (Gulfstream Park) and in Arkansas (Oaklawn Park), (but) it’s also been happening weekly in Orange County (Los Alamitos).”

Also Wednesday, Churchill Downs was given the go-ahead from state officials to to reopen its stable area at both the track and the auxiliary training center on May 11 under strict guidelines.

Opening day of the 2020 spring meet with spectator-free racing will be announced after track officials evaluate the in-coming horse population.

The Kentucky Derby, originally scheduled to be run for the 146th time Saturday, was postponed in March and rescheduled for Sept. 5.