The action for damages brought by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer against the Stronach Group and its subsidiary owners of Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields is set to face a jury trial in Los Angeles Superior Court on February 14 following a pre-trial conference scheduled for Monday.
Hollendorfer was banned from TSG’s California tracks on June 22, 2019 following six deaths of horses in his care between Nov. 18, 2018 and the day the trainer was banned.
Four of those deaths occurred at Santa Anita, starting with gelding Psychedelicat during a claiming race on Dec. 30, 2018, four days after the start of winter competition. His catastrophic collapse was followed in Santa Anita by those in the 2017 Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and the winner of multiple Battle of Midway ranked stakes in practice on February 23, 2019; Kochees, a gelding, in a claiming race on May 25; and American Currency, a gelding that competed in claiming races, while training June 22. Both were training at the time.
Hollendorfer is expected to try to prove at trial that his expulsion by TSG was a public relations pretense in an effort to deflect blame from what some said were problems with the Santa Anita running surface and the alleged misconduct by track management during a series of more than 30 horse deaths and that, among other causes of action, he was denied due process, a creation of California law.
A brief filed by Hollendorfer’s attorney, Drew Couto, says Hollendorfer was denied due process on the day of American Currency’s disappearance before and during a hastily called 10-minute meeting with the chief executive. operation of TSG, Tim Ritvo. According to Hollendorfer, Ritvo said, “Belinda (Stronach) wants you out of here” after not being told what the meeting was about. He had 72 hours to evacuate his horses, belongings and employees from the rear.
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TSG, in its pre-trial brief signed by attorney Matthew Macdonald, argues that the requirements of due process were met both on June 22 and the following September. Hollendorfer, when given the opportunity to discuss his position in June, “provided no explanation for his eruption of horse deaths and failed to even acknowledge the need for improvement,” according to the memoir. .
TSG says it went further, holding a September “due process hearing” where Holledorfer had an attorney present and when track officials, according to the brief, “imposed no limits on (his) presentation and encouraged him to present all the evidence he wanted (TSG) to consider” in the presence of multiple witnesses. According to the memoir, Hollendorfer “took no responsibility…expressed no regret…(and) offered nothing to suggest he understood that horse racing was entering a new era where horse safety and riders would come first. Instead, he blamed others for the death in his barn.”
As for the condition of the trail, there is no doubt that the area had rain and cold far exceeding the norm that winter. Hollendorfer’s potential witnesses include trainers and others frequently exposed to track conditions. Unless restricted by Judge Maurice Leiter, they may offer opinions that poorly reflect management’s handling of environmental conditions. Yet, according to TSG’s memoir, Hollendorfer testified that he had never raced a horse on a bad track.
TSG says Hollendorfer’s own “lead expert witness,” Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, contradicts the view that Santa Anita management was to blame for the track conditions. In his sworn deposition, McIlwraith, who is an equine orthopedic surgeon, said “I do not blame anyone” before adding that he did not offer an opinion “on anything that has been done regarding the trail maintenance.
According to TSG’s brief, Dr. Mick Peterson is expected to testify that, based on his on-site and laboratory testing of dirt samples, ground-penetrating radar, and surface testing using a device biomechanical hoof test, he could not find any fault in the track.
TSG says it will provide proof that it did not sit idly by during the events. “Defendants have invested millions in state-of-the-art diagnostic imaging technology to aid in the detection of injuries – equipment that no other racetrack in North America has on-site,” according to the brief, and “hired additional vets… (and) enacted a host of new restrictions on the use of riding crops and medication.”
This last point refers to the prohibition of the use of Lasix and the “increased prohibition of legal therapeutic NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), joint injections, shock wave therapy and anabolic steroids,” which was announced in a March 2019 press release by Belinda Stronach amid the string of blackouts.
A joint filing filed by the attorney last week shows that up to 60 witnesses could be called at trial, including 54 listed by Hollendorfer’s attorney. Defendants retain the right to call any of those 54. Lawyers estimate 88 hours of testimony if all listed witnesses testify, which is unlikely. Still, it’s possible that six hours of testimony a day consume three weeks of trial, and that doesn’t include the voir dire (jury selection), opening statements, and closing arguments.
In addition to Ritvo and Belinda Stronach, Hollendorfer also lists among his witnesses such familiar industry names as Dr. Rick Arthur, Greg Avioli, Rick Baedeker, Jeff Blea, Russell Baze, Craig Fravel, Peter Miller, Doug O’Neill, Mike Puhich, Dr. Rick Sams, Art Sherman, Mike Smith, Frank Stronach, Darrell Vienna and Dan Ward. Four members of the turf media are also listed as potential witnesses by Hollendorfer. In alphabetical order, they are Jeremy Balan, John Cherwa, Jay Hovdey and Jay Privman.
Hollendorfer’s case no longer encompasses an attempted readmission to the track. His claims for relief were dismissed by the Superior Court in September 2019, February 2020 and November 2021.