Why bettors at Santa Anita Park aren't deterred by the 'stigma' of horses dying

Protestors outside of Santa Anita Park on Saturday. (Josh Schafer/Yahoo Sports)
Protestors outside of Santa Anita Park on Saturday. (Josh Schafer/Yahoo Sports)

ARCADIA, Calif.— They came in groups, some regulars, others first-timers. Scattered across the stands, they flipped through their newspaper print programs. They sipped on Golden Road draft beers and smacked hands in celebration when they picked a winner.

For the bettors of Santa Anita Park, Saturday was just another day of horse racing.

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Sitting in the green stadium seats of the 85-year-old race track, you wouldn’t know 29 horses had died here since late December. Outside it’s more evident. Headlines have followed each death and protestors have expressed their concerns for weeks.

Last Sunday, the California Horse Racing Board asked the park to shut down for the remainder of the season, which ends on June 23. California Governor Gavin Newsom said “enough is enough” and called for stricter regulations, including independent veterinarian inspections on each horse competing.

The park issued new protocol. Before racing Saturday, each horse’s racing, training and medical records were reviewed by a team of five medical experts. Santa Anita ran its nine races on Saturday, the bettors placed wagers totaling into the hundreds of thousands on a single race and no horses were euthanized.

“These aren't pets,” said Synthia Campos, who comes to Santa Anita several times a season. “These are machines. People spend a lot of money on these horses to win. It makes me sad that they have to put them down after.

“I wish there was a way that they could put them out to pasture but I know that they're bred for that reason.”

‘The stigma doesn't affect horse people’

Robert Cortez remembers hearing Joey Hernandez’s famous call “And there they go!” countless times growing up near the racetrack.

The historic catchphrase traces back to many moments in Santa Anita Park history, most notably Sea Biscuit’s win in 1940, which was later turned into a novel and film. The location also hosted the equestrian events for the Summer Olympics in 1984. This November, the 2019 Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita.

“This is California,” Cortez said. “This is Pasadena, Arcadia. And it’s a good day, I just love the track.”

Attendance is down to roughly 10,000 people on Saturdays at Santa Anita Park. (Josh Schafer/Yahoo Sports)
Attendance is down to roughly 10,000 people on Saturdays at Santa Anita Park. (Josh Schafer/Yahoo Sports)

The track’s not as crowded as it used to be, said Santa Anita gate attendant Joseph Giordano. He’s worked here 48 years and remembers the track peaking at 60,000 people on Saturdays. Now it’s down to around 10,000 he estimates, though he believes it’s from people betting online rather than coming to the track.

Cortez — who spent about $60 commuting round trip to the track — doesn’t bet on horses for the money. He just likes the atmosphere.

“I don't like what's happening to the horses,” Cortez said, “but like I said, everybody wants to make the easy bucks.”

Plopped down on a bench between a brown wooden cane and a Miller Lite, Cortez turned to a friend to gamble.

“Time for Suzie,” he said. “Put five across.”

Perched up in the top row of the general admission seats, Wayne Handley comes to the track every Saturday. He has been into horse racing for 50 years and says the euthanization isn’t any worse than it has ever been. He cited reports, that death totals were higher in year’s past, though those years had more starts.

Handley, like every bettor who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Saturday, isn’t deterred by the deaths. He believes it’s part of the sport. Always has been, always will be.

On Sunday, Santa Anita will be open for the first of its final four race days. It’ll be another day at the track. The horses will race. Maybe one will die. Maybe none will. It’s all part of the gamble.

“The stigma doesn't affect horse people,” Handley said. “It doesn't affect bettors.”

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