Tim Ritvo Q&A: ‘There Are Things That Aren’t Acceptable Any More’

by | 03.09.2019 | 3:00pm
Tim Ritvo

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group's Racing and Gaming Division that owns Santa Anita Park, sat down with Paulick Report publisher Ray Paulick to discuss the current situation at the Arcadia, Calif., track in the wake of the recent shutdown following a spike in racing fatalities that totaled 21 horses since opening day on Dec. 26, 2018.

What are the steps that are being before taken before a decision it made to reopen Santa Anita for training and racingp on the main track?
Tim Ritvo: We have to get complete confidence from Dennis (track surface consultant Dennis Moore), saying that he doesn't think there are any issues at all. We actually almost had that this morning (Friday), but we're saying to him that we really want to be sure. We're doing some analytical studies on the 21 horses. Can we find anything in common? Obviously, it's happened at all different parts of the racetrack, different surfaces on dirt and turf.

We're looking back at what patterns exist. Did they run on previously sealed tracks? Did they work out on previously sealed tracks? We are finding a few common things. Twelve of the horses had run on previously sealed tracks. We're looking at time between races. Every little thing we are trying to extract from data points. We are trying to figure out if there are similar or common points so we can prevent this from happening again. Those things are being worked on right now.

There is a chance from what we are learning that maybe we don't run over a sealed track any more. Those would be considered “snow days” in the Northeast. Because of the material and the way the tracks are built out here – not for a constant onslaught of rain – that when we float them they are tight. Dennis has told me that when the track is sealed as tight as it can possibly be sealed here, he gets about 2 ½ inches of cushion, and he says 20 years ago we used to get a half-inch of cushion.  So there's definitely more dirt out there and more cushion out there. The compression tests show what they should show, that there's no irregularities. The evenness of the track is normal. But we are going to proceed with caution. We feel that we could rush back, but it's not the right thing to do. We are basically going to go slow.

I assume you will reopen for training first.
Yes. There will be a whole process (Santa Anita officials announced the protocol on Friday afternoon). Right now we are allowing exercising on the training track, loosening the horses up for a few days. If everything goes well then, we'll allow breezing on the training track under select criteria. You'll have to apply in the racing office to breeze. We're going to look at the past performance of that horse. If he hasn't worked in a period of time, we may say he needs a little bit more time.  Then there will be what we call “gray area horses” that we are going to have vets check out, then there will be horses that we let work. If we get 150 applications, we may let 100 horses work the first week. It will be 15 minutes after a break when only the workers will be allowed out there. Then it will be the same procedure on the main track.  On Monday it looks like right now, we'll open the main track for training; it will be only jogging and galloping. We'll observe how it reacts over a couple of days, then we'll allow breezing again there under the new rules.

If everything is good, we'd start looking at when we'll start racing again. We want to make sure the horses have enough time to exercise and breeze before they run.

You mentioned some of the horses that sustained fatal injuries had run over sealed tracks. Will horses whose last race was on a sealed track be more closely scrutinized?
Those horses will be in what we call a high-risk category. We'll have different categories for all horses: high risk, gray area, no risk. As we take entries and build up our races as time goes on, we'll look at these horses carefully.

We know the first day we race everybody in the world will be watching us. The second day, a few less, and a few less the day after that. But we'd like to keep these rules and practices in place because, in the end, statistically, it's hard to beat 1.5 per thousand (the approximate number of fatalities based on data gathered by the Equine Injury Database), but it's our goal to get below that. Stricter rules and protocols can help.  I don't want to say better maintenance of the track because we feel really comfortable that the track gets the highest priority, though we can always learn. Dennis has been asked, “What if you put a Northern or Northeast kind of track surface in here so that it can absorb more water?” He said, “Yes, but when the summer comes and you have all this dry weather they'll be going right through it to the base because you can't keep enough water on it.”

To be clear, the composition of the track surface here is different than it is at Gulfstream Park or Laurel?
Much different. I'm learning now from Dennis that the silt at Northeast tracks rolls down to the rail and then they scrape it back out. Here, the silt works its way into the base, because of the mixture or the kind of weather we have. So we have to replace the silt and actually till it a little bit – he digs in and tills it – and the silt rises back up and we mix it back in.

The one thing we do here, probably more than any track in America, is we take constant evaluations of the material to make sure it's not breaking up. Dennis and Mick Peterson (track surface consultant from the University of Kentucky) have been working together for years, with Dennis sending samples to him, so there's a good baseline of what did we have before and what do we have after the rains.

The horsemen I've talked to are very happy Dennis Moore is back in a consulting role. Some of them question the circumstances of him leaving at the end of December. Why did he leave?
The truth is, and there's been all kinds of speculation with that because, listen, I'm a guy who comes in and tries to drive profit. Nothing could be further from the truth about Dennis. From the day I came here, and Dennis can be asked, Dennis and I got along great. The only thing I would do with Dennis is when trainers would text me that the track is too slow, I'd send the messages to him and he'd handle it. Never once did I tell Dennis what to do or cut any of the workload. I lived on the property. I watched the tractors go around at two o'clock in the morning and I always thought “the safety of the track is No. 1.” I'm not a track guy, Dennis is. Dennis was at a point in his life where he's getting a little older, didn' t want to work 365 days a year, lives a couple of hours from this facility.

Andy LaRocco (the new track superintendent) lives 20 minutes from here and he's getting a bad deal in this. It's a shame. He's a guy that's been working under the best track guys for 36 years and deserves an opportunity. When Dennis told me he was going to retire in December, I asked him “What do I do? Do I go out and look for somebody?” He said, “Timmy, you got the best guy. This guy does everything I've said for 36 years.” I feel really bad for Andy and I'll defend him because he was up against it. Three or four years ago we had rain similar to this and Dennis was pulling his hair out trying to figure out how to get through it. I talked to Dennis again, and he said that Andy is the right guy, but Dennis has committed to stay on with us to get though this and maybe even through the Breeders' Cup to stay on in a consultant role. Everyone feels comfortable with that.

I just don't think it's been fair for a guy who's been doing this for 36 years, who lives and breathes it – he's a dirt monkey. When Andy got promoted, Dennis' son got promoted to Andy's position, so it's the entire same team that Dennis had. Dennis will tell you, I never once questioned the cost. I never once had a disagreement on salaries. Trainers came to me many times, good or bad, I went to Dennis and he handled it.

So there's been no reduction in staff or budget?
None. Zero. Other areas? Yes. Tellers and other parts of the business. But as far as the track maintenance, no.

Trainers are also telling me they are being pressured to run more and feel maybe this is a tired horse population.
That one we can't run from. We think that what the bettor wants, the economic engine, is bigger fields. The word “pressure” can be used different ways. We are saying to them, for us to survive, to make us successful, to make people bet on us, we need bigger fields. We are going to look at all that. We don't feel anyone should ever be threatened. No one's been thrown out because they didn't run. We've never asked a person to run a sore horse. We've never gone to the stewards and said “stick that guy” (making him unable to scratch except for veterinarian reasons). We've said to a trainer, “Come on, just because you drew the one hole and feel you can't compete, that's not a reason to scratch.”

So it's fair to say we are looking for bigger fields and trying to figure out how to get more people to bet on our product.  People shouldn't be threatened, and I can tell you I've didn't threaten anybody. I ask people to run and participate. We do have a problem with horse population out here. It's a chicken and egg situation. How do we get more people to run here? How do we get them to not ship their horses out of town? Do we lower the claiming price? There's disagreement with that, with some saying this is a high-end venue and cheaper claiming races don't belong here.

But I'm also trying to figure out how do I keep 80 percent of the purse money from going to 20 percent of the people. How do I have a more balanced program? I thought by having more races and more opportunities it would give everybody a better chance to win. If you split a maiden claiming $25,000 with seven or eight horses in it, you create two winners rather than one winner and a bunch of guys that ship out of town. Those are the things I look at. I'm open to debate on it. Also, if you run more races, statistically you have more starters and, unfortunately, based on statistics you will have more injuries. But the answer is not to run five races a day to reduce the number of injuries. There's got to be a balance and I'm always willing and open to discuss that.

I know that you have been back in Maryland dealing with legislative issues, but when did this situation with the spike in injuries become known to you, and looking back now would you have done anything differently in terms of reacting to it?

There's one thing I would have done different. When we started to realize the spike was higher than the previous two years, we were alarmed. We looked at the track immediately before it became a mainstream media event. Obviously we knew the weather was a factor. Those things were already in our head and we were looking at it. If I could have done anything different, I caved to the pressure on Sunday afternoon (Feb. 24). We were going to close the track after we had a fatality on Sunday. We were going to close it Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to look at the base, look at the mixture, and do all that.  I got calls from prominent trainers who said, “I'm scheduled to work tomorrow.”  Even Jay Privman (Daily Racing Form national correspondent) had something about Javier Castellano is coming in to work Hollendorfer's horse (Instagrand).

So I caved on it, saying if they think it's OK to work, then let's work these horses Monday and we'll have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday to look at the track. We were going to cancel racing on Thursday, give ourselves a chance to really look at it. If I could take that back I would have stuck to my guns. Or I would have restricted working to those three or four horses that they really felt needed to work, and it would have been left on them. Obviously these are great horsemen and trainers, and they would never work their horses if they thought there was something wrong with the track. I believe we had 140 horses work on that Monday. Unfortunately we had a horse break down. So if I could take something back, that's what I would take back. Sometimes my openness for people being able to reach out to me complicated it.

I had a bunch of people, top trainers, telling me, “There's nothing wrong with the track, Timmy. Please, we have all these workouts scheduled.” I shouldn't have caved. I should have said, “You know what? We've got a problem here. We've got to deal with it. Not a problem with the surface, but a problem. I regret that, but you can't take it back. You just learn from it and go forward. I think I have good instincts, they've served me well. I should just go with them.

Do you feel like Santa Anita has been mistreated by the trade press and the national media?
This is how I feel and I'll be very honest and frank. I feel nobody should hide or cover anything up. Let's talk about outside the bubble, the people who aren't within the industry – not the Blood-Horse, Racing Form or you. Outside the bubble, they are reporting a story they consider of tragic proportions and don't understand completely. They are doing their job and I have no hard feelings for them. It does disappoint me that they are out on a tragedy. There were more cameras here today, yesterday and the day before than there were when we had Justify winning a Triple Crown race. Maybe it's the industry's fault, we're more in the bubble than we thought.

With inside the bubble journalism, whether it's Blood-Horse, Daily Racing Form or other publications, when we have tragedies, it's not that they should be covered up, but it should be more balanced. They contribute to bringing in the outside media. It's a tough one. I'd like the outside media here a lot more when we're doing good things, and 90 percent of the business has good things. And it's not just our industry, but it's the world today: what sells is death and gloom rather than the positive things that happen in the world.

You've said before that you think the industry needs fundamental change in welfare and safety issues because of the way society is changing. How serious is this in terms of California racing?

It's critical. Right now I hope the people in the industry – whether it's the Thoroughbred Owners of California, California Thoroughbred Trainers, the California Horse Racing Board – can come together.  Nationally we've had great support. New York Racing Association has contacted me, Keeneland has contacted our people, Alan Foreman (CEO of the Thoroughbred Horseman's Association) has been amazing in outlining what they did in New York (after a similar spike in fatalities at Aqueduct during the winter of 2011-12). Everyone knows that this could be them. The Ringling Brothers Circus doesn't exist any more. SeaWorld has had to change.

We have to come together and put strong protocols in place.  I don't want to sound conceited, but I've had as much experience as anybody else. I rode when drugs were more prevalent, when tracks were in rougher shape in the winter time. I trained during a different era. I lived through all of this. It is time. There were things that were acceptable when I was an 18-year-old kid that aren't acceptable any more. Now we are in another phase where we really need to straighten some things out.

Control the medication. I'm a firm believer that third-party independent Lasix is a great thing because it keeps private veterinarians out of a horse's stall six hours before the race. I'm almost leaning toward this, and the vets will attack me, that it should be 24 hours. If we've got the third-party vets giving Lasix, why don't we have them give Bute 24 hours before and close those stalls up.

The testing procedures are as sophisticated as we can make them, but because there's a bunch of money involved there's always guys looking for ways to beat the system. You've seen at all of our facilities: technology, cameras, investigations. This should be a privilege to play in this game. I'm not taking responsibility off the track for the things we need to do, but as an industry the horsemen need to look at themselves. They have to help root out these guys. No one likes a guy winning at 40 or 50 percent. We don't know how you can do that. Great horsemen – Bill Mott, Shug McGaughey, Christophe Clement – win at 16 percent with the greatest horses in the world. We've got guys winning at 40 or 50 percent. Maybe they're really good and maybe they're working really hard, but they need to be under stringent rules, and we'll say, “We've got to keep a closer eye on you,” and you know we've done that in other places, but it's a big problem, an industry problem.

And I'll tell you. New York, I have great respect for David O'Rourke and his team, but these subsidies of purse money not being balanced properly will create bad behavior. If a claiming race is $10,000 and it has a $40,000 purse, we're going to have problems in this game. (The New York Racing Association recently announced purse increases in claiming races, with $10,000 claiming races going up to $28,000, while also enhancing soundness evaluations.) We're not crying over spilled milk because we don't have that kind of money to spend, we think a more balanced program is the right formula. That's me. Everyone may have a different opinion on that. But this is a way you can create bad behavior, when you can claim a horse for $10,000 and run for $40,000. We have a problem. It's our job, as an industry, not just the track or the CHRB, but it's the horsemen who have to be involved. How do we stop this so this game survives.

Back to the eventual resumption of racing, an important prep for the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby was lost, along with the Big 'Cap – the Santa Anita Handicap – this track's most famous race. Are those races going to be rescheduled.
Yes, the Big 'Cap tentatively is going to be rescheduled on Santa Anita Derby day (April 6). We'll try to make a big day of it.  I know it changes plans on some horses with Dubai in the mix, but if we lose one or two stars but get a bigger field and have opportunities for other people, it is what it is. I understand being a trainer and having a wife who ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic that sometimes you get a once-in-a-lifetime horse.  I want to be sympathetic to those owners and trainers. The problem with the San Felipe is those races (for 3-year-olds) were so perfectly scheduled, that race won't come back because it just doesn't fit in the schedule.  All the rest I believe will be rescheduled: the Beholder, the Big 'Cap. I'm sympathetic to everyone associated with those horses, but first and foremost we obviously needed to correct the critical situation we had. That had to come first.  We all have to look at the bigger picture rather than the individual racehorse.

What will have to happen before things are back to normal? What will have to happen?
Truthfully, I don't think we'll ever see “normal” again. It will be a different normal. Obviously we have to get by the first week of racing when we get back and hope nothing happens. Then we have to implement rules and procedures to get better. “Normal” should be getting better all the time.  Traditionally, 1.5 to 2 horses per thousand starts is the number around the country. Can we get better than that? We'd like to. If we put those rules and procedures in place we might be able to.

There's also the question of “Does every horse that gets euthanized have to be euthanized?” Is it a cost analysis where they say it doesn't really afford to rehabilitate them because this is not going to be a good racehorse, so why do we have to put $6,000 into a riding horse? Those things are going to have to be challenged and changed, too. During this time, I don't think we lost any horses on per se the racetrack. These were all analysis done afterwards. If a racing career is over, does that mean the horse has to be put down? Probably a majority of them did, but there's going to have to be a rethinking of how can we put money aside for rehabilitating these horses that don't have to be put down that can be great pasture horses or something else.

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