ARCADIA, Calif. — Normally, the sound of horse hooves pounding against the dirt racetrack can be heard Wednesday mornings at Santa Anita Park. But on this Wednesday, the sound of chirping birds signaled an unusual day, devoid of the morning workouts as light rain fell on the empty track.
The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park, has shut down the track indefinitely after 21 horses died over the past two months. The deaths have led to protests at the track, with PETA members on Monday carrying signs that read, “STOP KILLING HORSES’’ and “Horse Racing Kills Horses.’’
But it’s unlikely there will be any protests from trainers, jockeys or other horsemen.
Art Sherman, who trained Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes-winner California Chrome, talked about the bind he and others faced before the track closed — and when it reopens.
“The only way we can make a living is to run the horses and get purse money,’’ Sherman told USA TODAY Sports. “So you need to run. Same with the owners. They don’t like paying bills and sitting in the barn. And then they start shipping to other places just so they can have action and make some money.’’
As the deaths mounted, Sherman and most other trainers continued to race their horses at the track.
“It’s kind of (a) scary thing,’’ said Sherman, 82, who won his first Triple Crown races as a trainer in 2014 when California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. “I’ve never seen that many breakdowns in a long time. …You know, I was getting a little nervous.”
Since the track’s winter meet began Dec. 26, seven deaths have occurred during races on the dirt oval; five on the turf course; and nine during training on dirt.
In 2017, 20 deaths occurred among a total of 8,463 starts over a span of 122 racing days at Santa Anita, according to the most recent figures compiled by The Jockey Club.
While he addressed financial realities, Sherman also expressed concern.
“I have to wait and make sure everything looks good,’’ he said. “I can’t take a chance running on a bad racetrack. I’d just assume wait another week or 10 days or two weeks. Whatever it takes to feel good about having a safe track.’’
Santa Anita officials did not immediately respond to requests from USA TODAY Sports about how much money it’s losing each day the track is closed and the current condition of the track.
Two major races were scheduled this weekend, including the San Felipe for 3-year-old Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
Trainer Doug O’Neill suggested he and fellow trainers can continue racing responsibly at the track despite the inordinate number of horse deaths.
“It’s one of those things where as horsemen, you know your horses,’’ he told USA TODAY Sports. “You know the ones that are sure-footed enough that could handle any kind of slick going or wet going. So I think (deciding when to run horses) that’s all on an individual basis type thing.’’
O’Neill also expressed confidence in the Stronach Group’s ability to resolve the situation. It has announced it will bring back former track superintendent Dennis Moore to help lead the investigation.
“Once this current storm gets out of the way, they’re going to let Dennis Moore have a green light to do whatever he thinks,’’ O’Neill said. “No one really knows how long the track will be closed. But the one thing I’m certain of is that whenever it does reopen, they’re going to have the safest track in America, for a while at least.
“That’s what we want and that’s what the horses deserve.’’
Contributing: The Associated Press
Follow Josh Peter on Twitter @joshlpeter11.