A new condition at Santa Anita Park designed to restrict entries to smaller barns in California spurred a protest in the first race it was employed Jan. 7.
The sixth race Sunday, which had the condition of "restricted to trainers with 20 or less horses in their care in California," was won by Overcomer, who is trained by Charles Treece. The 6-year-old Old Topper gelding edged Power Hour Racing's Airfoil by a head at the wire to take down the $10,800 winner's share of the purse. Airfoil earned $3,600 for second.
After the race, Jason Jocher, who owns Power Hour Racing, filed a protest with the California Horse Racing Board regarding the eligibility of Overcomer and contended Treece has more than 20 horses in his care at his Los Alamitos Race Course base.
"I am protesting this race, as Treece has well over 20 (Thoroughbreds), per CHRB investigators," Jocher wrote on the protest form. "Overcomer was not eligible for this race. (Trainer Jesus) Nunez also has 70 horses in (California) and was allowed to run (Dutt Bart, who finished last in the 10-horse field)."
Jocher said, as he was filling out the protest paperwork, the CHRB investigator he spoke with made a call to Los Alamitos for a head count of the Treece- and Nunez-trained horses on the grounds, and told the owner Treece had 35 horses and Nunez had 70. Nunez had 560 Thoroughbred starts in 2017 and Treece had 170.
Los Alamitos officials said Sunday morning that Nunez had approximately 28 Thoroughbreds in his care at the track, but did not provide Treece's numbers as of Sunday night.
CHRB spokesman Mike Marten said the regulatory agency did not have an official number for either trainer in question, but that an investigation into the matter was underway.
According to Jocher, Justin Clark, who trained Airfoil toward Sunday's race, has four Thoroughbreds and two Quarter Horses in his care following the claim of Airfoil from the six-furlong sprint.
Earlier in the week, Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle said the condition was 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 Jan. 5. "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 CHRB stewards at Santa Anita said before the race that they discussed the issue with Hammerle, but decided not to scratch the horses in question.
"We met with the racing secretary, and were satisfied with his criteria and what he meant the condition to be. ... Do we wish it would was written more clearly? Absolutely. Does it rise to the level of scratching a horse? It does not," said steward Scott Chaney.
Earlier in the week, Chaney said it was the stewards' responsibility to determine if an entrant is eligible for any race, based on the conditions set.
"It's an interesting question (regarding eligibility for the race), because the racing secretary can write any conditions he wants," Chaney said Jan. 5. "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."
Steward Grant Baker also said Friday that the stewards would be obligated to scratch any horse that does not fit the condition of a race.
"Yes, if we know 100% (that the horse does not fit the condition)," Baker said Friday.
Along with an investigation, Marten said Sunday that the stewards at Santa Anita will conduct hearings into the matter.
"The condition is the condition," Jocher said. "You can't run a (non-winner of three races) in a (non-winner of two) race. Why is this different?"