The damages case filed by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer against The Stronach Group and subsidiaries in ownership of Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields is poised to go to jury trial in Superior Court of Los Angeles on Feb. 14 following a pre-trial conference set for Monday.
Hollendorfer was barred from TSG’s California tracks on June 22, 2019 following six deaths of horses in his care between Nov. 18, 2018 and the day of the trainer’s banishment.
Four of those deaths occurred at Santa Anita, starting with the gelding Psychedelicat in a claiming race on Dec. 30, 2018, four days after the winter meet began. His catastrophic breakdown was followed at Santa Anita by those of 2017 Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and multiple graded stakes winner Battle of Midway while training on Feb. 23, 2019; Kochees, a gelding, during a claiming race on May 25; and American Currency, a gelding that ran in claiming races, while training on June 22. At Golden Gate, lightly-raced mare River of Doubt was the first of the six to succumb, and claiming race veteran Defiantly broke down on Jan. 6. Both were trained at the time.
Battle of Midway wins the 2017 Reeders Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita Park
Hollendorfer is expected to try to prove at trial that his expulsion by TSG was a public relations pretext made in an effort to shift blame away from what some said were problems with Santa Anita’s racing surface and alleged misfeasance by track management during a spate of over 30 horse deaths, and that, among other causes of action, he was not afforded fair procedure, a creature of California law.
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A trial brief filed by Hollendorfer attorney Drew Couto says Hollendorfer was denied fair procedure on the day of American Currency’s demise before and during a hastily-called 10-minute meeting with then TSG chief operating officer Tim Ritvo. According to Hollendorfer, Ritvo said, “Belinda (Stronach) wants you out of here” after being given no notice of what the meeting was about. He was given 72 hours to vacate his horses, possessions, and employees from the backside.
TSG, in its pre-trial brief signed by attorney Matthew Macdonald, argues that the requirements of fair procedure were met both on June 22 and the following September. Hollendorfer, when afforded the opportunity to discuss his position in June, “offered no explanation for his rash of horse fatalities and did not even acknowledge a need to improve,” according to the brief.
TSG says it went a step further, holding in September a “fair procedure hearing” where Holledorfer had an attorney present and when track officials, according to the brief, “placed no limits on (his) presentation and encouraged him to present all evidence he wanted (TSG) to consider” in the presence of multiple witnesses. According to the brief, Hollendorfer “took no responsibility … offered no expression of regret … (and) offered nothing to suggest he understood that horse racing was entering a new era where horse and rider safety would come first. Instead, he blamed others for the fatalities in his barn.”
As for the condition of the track, there’s no dispute the area had rain and cold weather far exceeding the norm that winter. Hollendorfer’s prospective witnesses include trainers and others with frequent exposure to track conditions. Unless limited by Judge Maurice Leiter, they may offer opinions that reflect poorly on the way management handled environmental conditions. Yet, according to TSG’s brief, Hollendorfer said in deposition he never ran a horse on a bad track.
TSG says Hollendorfer’s own “lead expert witness,” Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, undercuts the view that Santa Anita management was to blame for track conditions. In his deposition testimony under oath, McIlwraith, who is an equine orthopedic surgeon, said “I’m not putting anyone at fault” before adding he was not offering an opinion “of anything done regarding track maintenance.”
According to TSG’s brief, Dr. Mick Peterson is expected to testify that, based on his onsite and laboratory testing of dirt samples, ground penetrating radar, and surface testing using a biomechanical hoof testing device, he could not find a defect in the track.
TSG says it will offer evidence it didn’t idly stand by in the course of events. “Defendants invested millions in cutting-edge diagnostic imaging technology to assist with injury detection—equipment that no other racetrack in North America has onsite,” according to the brief, and “hired additional veterinarians … (and) adopted a host of new restrictions on the use of riding crops and medications.”
The latter point is a reference to banning the use of Lasix and “increasing the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids,” which was announced in a March 2019 media release by Belinda Stronach in the midst of the series of breakdowns.
A joint filing made by counsel last week shows up to 60 witnesses could be called at trial, 54 of them listed by Hollendorfer’s attorney. Defendants retain the right to call any of those 54. Attorneys estimate 88 hours of testimony if everyone on the witness list testifies, which is unlikely. Still, there is the potential that six hours of testimony per day would consume three weeks of trial, and that doesn’t include voir dire (jury selection), opening statements, and closing arguments.
In addition to Ritvo and Belinda Stronach, Hollendorfer also lists among his witnesses familiar industry names like 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 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 attempt to be readmitted to the track. His pleas for that relief were rejected by Superior Court in September 2019, February 2020, and November 2021.