Ax Man wins a conditional maiden special weight race at Santa Anita Jan. 1

Ax Man wins a conditional maiden special weight race at Santa Anita Jan. 1

Benoit Photo

Santa Anita Tries Out New Conditions to Retain Owners

Conditions based on sale price and barn size have been instituted in limited races.

As Ax Man continued to pull away from nine other 3-year-old males Jan. 1 at Santa Anita Park, you could almost feel the discontent in the air.

The 9 1/2-length victory for the Misremembered  colt is what these new races are supposed to prevent—dominating winners from powerful barns like those of trainer Bob Baffert—and sure enough, a Baffert horse won the first one.

But it was also only one race. And although it wasn't what horsemen and horse owners might have wanted to see, the new conditions Santa Anita has deployed, according to track officials, are designed to aid a part of the industry they feel needs help.

The maiden special weight race Ax Man won was restricted to 3-year-olds who were homebred or "purchased at public auction for $100,000 or less," to encourage more winners from the middle market in the game, but maybe more importantly, to cut down on discouraging results for connections in that category.

"The idea is to give the guy who spends a lot of money—for the average guy—an edge to race at one of the top tracks in the country for 3-year-olds this time of year," said Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle, who also noted the condition would be limited to 3-year-old races on the dirt main track. "Mentally, trying to run against these million-dollar, royally bred horses, maybe they're getting discouraged."

With the backing of The Stronach Group's chief operating officer Tim Ritvo, Hammerle has instituted this condition on a limited basis, as well as another that targets trainers who have less than 20 horses in their care, as a test balloon of sorts, with the aim to retain owners who might otherwise leave the game frustrated.

"It's not about whether these races work or not. It's about shaking things up and trying new things," Ritvo said. "How do we help an owner stay in the business longer? We're becoming like the rest of the world, where there are Walmarts, but all the mom-and-pop grocery stores are gone. We're becoming that, and it's not good for our (business) model. That's for sure."

The idea has been pretty evenly supported by the trainers at Santa Anita, if not only for the spirit behind the condition, but for the track's willingness to try to find solutions for complex issues.

"I think it's great that anyone would try to think up something new in this game," said Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. "Time will tell whether this helps or not, but let's all give it a try. I'm optimistic. It's impressive to see someone thinking of something, instead of doing the same thing over and over."

"I don't think it's a bad idea at all. I'm glad they're trying something new," added trainer Phil D'Amato, who saddled Elevated Knight in the first conditional maiden special weight on New Year's Day. "There's a lot of owners out there who don't spend a crazy amount of money that have nice horses. If they could break their maiden sooner in the year as opposed to later, they could compete just as easily in open company."

The point brought up by D'Amato—that it would be in the long-term interest of most involved to create more winners eligible for first-level allowance races or stakes, especially early in the year for 3-year-olds—is another motivating factor for the condition. Although it might create smaller fields for non-restricted maiden special weight races, the tradeoff would be filling more first-level allowance races and stakes for sophomores.

"If you can run both (the conditional and open maiden special weight) races consistently every three weeks, now you have two winners who can run in the (first-level allowance) or in a stakes, and that's important," said trainer Mark Glatt, who trains More Honor, the horse who finished second to Ax Man Jan. 1.

"We need more maiden races and we need to break maidens, because if we don't, there's no horses for the stakes," Baffert added.

Glatt also pointed out the need to keep current owners and add new ones, and was encouraged by the steps being taken at Santa Anita.

"If we can see that race consistently written in Southern California, maybe owners that buy horses for that kind of money will want to come out here instead of being on the East Coast, where they can have eight tracks to choose from," Glatt said. "Now they don't have to run against the $800,000 Baffert horse. There's going to be a race that the OK horse can run in.

"Let's say I spend $75,000 for a horse and I've got $100,000 into it, and it can't win a maiden allowance. So I run it for $50,000 (in a maiden claiming race) and somebody claims it. How many times is an owner going to do that before he says, 'You know what, I can't compete in Southern California'? It's all about giving that middle-of-the-road guy a shot."

To help explain the thought behind the new condition, Ritvo shared a similar anecdote about his own experience as a trainer from 1996-2010.

"When I got to the point where I could buy horses for $100,000, I thought, 'This is great.' But I'm at Gulfstream in the winter and you aren't winning those races with $100,000 horses," Ritvo said. "I know the horse can win for (a) $50,000 (claiming tag), but who is going to tell their owner, 'I've got to run you for $50,000' before they even run? I would actually have to get his head kicked in a couple times to (convince the owner to drop in class).

"But in this scenario, even the horse the other day who was second because Baffert's was drawing off—he might have been last in another (open special weight) race, but now he's second and he has a nice check, and he thinks, 'Maybe we can win next time.' Now, maybe he runs second or third the next couple times and wins one. Now he's taken down around $60,000 and then maybe they look at running for $50,000 (in a claiming race) and it doesn't hurt as much.

"A lot of these guys will tell you, all they want to do is get close to even and have some fun. And maybe you hit with a Mucho Macho Man ."

Trainer Keith Desormeaux, even though he entered Optic in the first conditional maiden special weight Jan. 1, ultimately disagreed with the conditions philosophically.

"I don't like the handout. This is why we're in a top-class racing venue—to see how good we are," Desormeaux said. "If you start putting restrictions on the best, then you're not the best. I understand the intention, but if you ask me, I'm competitive in nature and I don't need a handout.

"It's a maiden allowance—the best of the best. But if they can do both—if they can have Baffert and the guy who spends a million dollars separate. If they can keep them happy doing both, OK."

Whether the Arcadia, Calif., track has the horse population to support both the conditional special weight races and open maiden races remains to be seen.

"It's going to be fine when there's enough horses," Mandella said. "When there's not enough, they'll have to open it up. But hopefully they'll have enough horses."

The other new condition Santa Anita is using for the first time Jan. 7 is a $10,000 claiming race "restricted to trainers with 20 or less horses in their care in California." The race drew 12 entries.

Although he has 15 graded stakes wins on his record, trainer Paulo Lobo has had a relatively rough stretch in recent years since he returned to train in Southern California from his native Brazil in 2014. With 13 horses currently in his care at Santa Anita, Lobo has Private Prospect entered in the six-furlong sprint Sunday and appreciates the efforts of those trying to create opportunity for smaller barns in the region.

"In the end it's going to create a little more chance for the guys who have less horses. It's a good idea to try," Lobo said. "It's difficult (for smaller stables), because you don't have options to run at smaller tracks (like in the East). I don't blame the big barns. They have the results. But I think California is looking to create these kinds of races."

The new and intriguing conditions by all accounts appear to be benevolent in nature, but they could also present pitfalls for Santa Anita.  

The groans were already in full effect when Ax Man won, because he is trained by Baffert, who is roundly considered the intended target to exclude from the conditional maiden races, and a semantic argument could be made for both outside-the-box conditions, should someone protest a race result. Ax Man is listed as being bred by Hal J. Earnhardt, but is also listed as being owned by Patty and Hal J. Earnhardt. Santa Anita's California Horse Racing Board-appointed stewards said they consider a husband-and-wife ownership to be the same as the single breeder in that case.

The less-than-20-horse condition could provide a more significant issue. Although it is unclear exactly how many horses are in his care at his Los Alamitos Race Course base—it was not immediately disclosed by Los Alamitos officials as of Friday afternoon—Jesus Nunez had 560 Thoroughbred starts in 2017 and has Dutt Bart entered in the conditional claiming race Sunday.

Hammerle says the condition is more of a "guideline" than a set-in-stone restriction on who can enter the race.

"We want to go down this list (on the overnight) and say, 'Does anybody stick out that looks like they don't belong?' And then we'll look into it," Hammerle said. "If somebody is trying to pull a fast one and move some horses around (to another trainer), we probably won't let you run. It's not a fine line, but if it doesn't look right, we're going to check it out.

"(Nunez's) horses are running for $3,200 and $4,000 (claiming prices during the nighttime races at Los Alamitos). I'm not counting those horses. When he applies for stalls here, he applies for six or something. We're not out to have an FBI investigation. How many starts does he make here? Not many."

The Santa Anita stewards indicated Jan. 5 that they ultimately determine whether a horse is eligible to participate in any race based on the conditions presented and said that they have already talked to Hammerle about potential issues with Sunday's race.

"It's an interesting question (regarding eligibility for the race), because the racing secretary can write any conditions he wants," said steward Scott Chaney. "Ultimately we decide eligibility, but we give a lot of deference to the guy who wrote the condition, in terms of what his intent was."

So, if the stewards have information that a horse entered does not fit the condition of the race—which in this case, is stated as "restricted to trainers with 20 or less horses in their care in California"—are they obligated to scratch the horse?

"Yes, if we know 100% (that the horse does not fit the condition)," said steward Grant Baker.