Seven weeks after spectatorless racing was suspended at Santa Anita Park as a COVID-19 precaution by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the track will hit the reset button May 15 with a nine-race program behind closed doors.
The resumption of racing also begins with an updated operating system, one with numerous safety initiatives designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Protocols include mandatory face masks and daily health screening, revised saddling and pre-race protocol to increase physical distancing, and the creation of a restricted zone housing jockeys, valets, and other essential personnel who must have a negative COVID-19 test to access.
Whatever the health hoops, most horsemen are simply happy to be back in action. It has been a demanding stretch this spring for trainers, jockeys, and owners alike in California. Golden Gate Fields in Northern California was shut down for a month and a half before it resumed racing May 14.
Even with purses reduced during the COVID-19 environment and with racing limited mostly to three days a week, horsemen are appreciative to have their runners compete again. Santa Anita, like other tracks in operation, must rely on advance wagering platforms, providing it with a smaller slice of betting revenue.
"I really do commend Santa Anita management for the job they've done since the pandemic hit and racing was suspended," said Aron Wellman, the president and founder of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. "I was very impressed with the compelling argument that they presented to the health department, and certainly they must be applauded for the investment that they've made in their facility to posture themselves to be able to execute what hopefully will turn out to be a safe and consistent program, moving forward to the end of the meet."
Eclipse is active Friday, running She's So Special in race 1 and Muchly in race 8. Both horses are competing in first-level allowances. Either solely or in partnership, Eclipse owns six horses running this week at Santa Anita and Golden Gate.
"We're raring to go," he said. "Our partners are excited and on edge, looking for the action at Santa Anita and Golden Gate this weekend. Hopefully, we can provide them with positive results and deliver them the goods. You know, get our blood pumping again in California."
Others share his enthusiasm, including trainer Ron Ellis, who entered Drop the Chalupa in Friday's first race, an allowance optional claimer on turf at 5 1/2 furlongs. The race carries a $51,000 base purse, down from its earlier level this year of $57,000.
Drop the Chalupa will be the first starter for his trainer since March 21. A day later, Santa Anita ran its last races of that month before racing was suspended.
"For me, I would describe it as relief more than excitement, but I am excited to get back to racing," he said.
He has a promising prospect in the oddly named Drop the Chalupa, a phrase that was popularized in Taco Bell advertisements in the late 1990s but that also has crude meanings in urban slang.
The gelded 3-year-old son of Liam's Map was a debut winner at odds of 16-1 in a March 7 maiden race for Richard Templer's Doubledown Stables, outrunning the heavily backed American Pharoah maiden American Code.
"I told him, 'This is a really nice horse. If he was a colt, I'd ask you to change the name because we can't have a stallion named Drop the Chalupa,'" Ellis recalled with a laugh.
American Code is also racing Friday, favored in the last race, a straight maiden race at 5 1/2 furlongs with a $50,000 purse, for trainer Bob Baffert. Out of the Ballerina Handicap (G1) winner Harmony Lodge (by Hennessy), the colt is related to two stakes winners, including Shakertown Stakes (G3T) winner Stratford Hill.
A $350,000 yearling purchase by Byerley Racing, American Code is one of several expensive purchases in race 9, the others being first-time starter Big Mel and Lane Way, who cost $800,000 and $550,000, respectively. MyRacehorse.com and Spendthrift Farm own both colts. Baffert trains Big Mel, a son of Quality Road . Lane Way, by Into Mischief , has been third in all three of his starts for trainer Richard Mandella.
The day's third race also has intrigue, featuring a matchup between Galilean, a three-time stakes-winning California-bred 4-year-old, and Tale of the Union, an eight-length winner of his only start at Del Mar in August 2018 but sidelined since for Baffert.
Stakes races resume Saturday at Santa Anita with the $150,000 Echo Echo Stakes and the $150,000 Evening Jewel Stakes, both for California-breds. They are two of 29 stakes on the track's amended schedule that continues until the meet's conclusion June 21.
Some of those stakes, including four grade 1s, will have lower purses than were announced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those grade 1s will be split among two cards, one May 25 that includes the Shoemaker Mile Stakes (G1T) and Gamely Stakes (G1T), both run for $300,000, and then another June 6 when the track runs the $400,000 Santa Anita Derby (G1) and $300,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes (G1).
The Santa Anita Derby will provide qualifying points toward the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) at Churchill Downs on a 100-40-20-10 basis to its top four finishers. The June 6, $200,000 Santa Anita Oaks (G2), downgraded from grade 1 status, provides points on the same scale toward the Sept. 4 Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) at Churchill.