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Put The Horse First: An Opinion From A Dedicated Fan


My Perspective: Hollendorfer Ouster A Tough But Necessary Decision

By Mary Perdue

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Photo: Benoit

Barely 48 hours ago, while filling my gas tank on the way home from volunteering at a therapeutic riding facility, I checked my email to find a News Alert from Thoroughbred Daily News, and shortly afterward, the Paulick Report, announcing The Stronach Group’s decision to force the removal of Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer from Santa Anita, as well as all other Stronach-owned tracks. I was aghast. As I read the TDN article, which recounted 19 drug related sanctions against the trainer as well as 15 drug related offenses over the last 14 years, my immediate reaction was shock, but not at the ouster of Hollendorfer, but at the fact that all these offenses were unknown to me.

My first reaction was to comment on a Paulick Report story on what I had read in the TDN article and to say that if these offenses were true, the removal of Hollendorfer from Santa Anita, coupled with the fact that six of his horses had died on Stronach tracks since December, seemed the right response. I also tweeted a link to the TDN article and my opinion. In the intervening 24 hours, simply as a result of doing that, I’ve been called a zealot and a PETA sympathizer (I’m neither). I’ve been insulted by someone who said I should “do my homework” when simply reporting what the TDN article stated. I’ve been called the “reason I’m leaving Twitter” by someone who didn’t agree with my posts, and was admonished by another who said that I m not entitled to express an opinion on this issue because I don’t live in California.

I don’t consider myself a racing insider. I don’t own racehorses, I’ve never hired a professional trainer, my livelihood isn’t dependent on racing, and I rarely wager. I just love the sport, and the beauty and power of the American Thoroughbred. I don’t have an inside track to backside information, and I’ve never claimed to. I just read and talk to a lot of people, again, because I love the sport. I don’t know Jerry Hollendorfer personally, nor do I have an axe to grind with him. In short, I know there’s a lot I don’t know.

Having said that, I’m truly amazed at the dogmatic and violent reactions I’ve encountered from people who claim they care about the future of American racing and the importance of putting the horse first. While I don’t agree with many of the things The Stronach Group has done or failed to do in this whole Santa Anita mess, the ouster of Hollendorfer alone does not demonize them in my eyes. Life is seldom simple. Sometimes bad people do good things, and vice-versa.

Imagine, dear reader, that you are in charge of Santa Anita, instead of the “evil, malicious, incompetent, greedy” Stronachs. For six months you’ve endured intense public scrutiny, and struggled to find a way to continue racing in the face of 29 horse deaths at your track. I urge you, just for a minute, to suspend disbelief at what caused those deaths, and to at least consider that something other than the track surface alone might have contributed to them.

On Friday June 21, CNN ran a story targeting Jerry Hollendorfer, among others, as trainers under investigation for an inordinate number of equine deaths at your tracks (three at Santa Anita and two at Golden Gate Fields for Hollendorfer alone.) The very next morning, after the story airs, another Hollendorfer trained horse breaks down at Santa Anita and has to be euthanized. What do you do? Issue a statement of support for Hollendorfer? Ignore it and say nothing? Give him a slap on the wrist as has always been done in the past? Or step up and do the unthinkable — tell him he’s no longer welcome at your facilities?

Here are some of the most popular social media defenses that have been offered for Hollendorfer so far:

  1. He’s a Hall of Fame trainer
    My Answer: So what? Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds were superstars when they committed their offenses. So was Maria Sharapova. A long record of success does not make you above the law; in fact, it should require you to adhere to a higher standard.
  2. There are worse offenders out there
    My Answer: I agree! But this defense never worked when I tried it on my parents. Bad actors elsewhere don’t exonerate or shield us from the consequences of whatever we’ve done that merits punishment. I realize that families’ livelihoods depend on Hollendorfer‘s stable, and I’m not making light of the hardship his ouster will inflict on them. The fact that other trainers with equal or worse offenses have escaped punishment doesn’t make me think that Hollendorfer’s actions are okay. Kicking him out sends a message to all trainers hovering on an unsavory edge, and I suspect he won’t be the last who’s asked to leave.
  3. Nineteen sanctions, fifteen offenses, and six dead horses isn’t really that bad considering how many starters he had
    My Answer: This might be my favorite… seriously? We just came from watching a week at Royal Ascot, where horses race drug free every day. The sprinter Blue Point won two grade 1 races in five days. Six-year-old gelding Cleonte ran nearly three miles in the Queen Alexandra Stakes without Lasix, didn’t bleed, and looked happy and alert at the end. Everyone on social media “oohed and aahed” at how great all this was. Yet we are okay with one or two drug offenses a year and an average of one dead horse a month so far this year from a single stable?
  4. Stronachs are venal, corrupt, hypocritical mis-managers using Hollendorfer as a scapegoat to mask their own problems
    My Answer: So it’s one or the other? It’s not possible that Hollendorfer did some things wrong no matter what you think of the Stronachs? Secondly, we are living in a far different world than the one in which so-called “minor” offenses were tolerated. If we want horseracing to survive, we need swift, decisive action in cases like this, even if a high-profile trainer is involved.

What is the answer going forward? In my opinion? No race day meds, period. We need a zero-tolerance policy for drug offenses, just like other professional sports. Due process: yes. Appeals process: yes. But once convicted, you’re out, either temporarily or permanently, depending on the offense. We also need more random out-of-competition testing everywhere, along with uniform laboratory and testing standards. And yes, we need a commissioner and a central governing body with the power to enforce. It shouldn’t be up to the Stronachs alone to decide what’s right, good or fair for racing in California or elsewhere, and they shouldn’t be hung out to dry when that role is forced upon them by the lack of an entity with teeth to enforce consistent, well-understood rules over all jurisdictions nationwide.

The bottom line is simple: put the horse first. The same people who mouth this platitude are some of those defending Hollendorfer. If you really mean to put the horse first, you’ll inevitably be required to make some hard choices and do things you wish you didn’t have to. Now is one of those times. You can’t say you are putting the horse first, and then make excuses for someone who didn’t.