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Schnell feeling lucky that Escape Clause not among horses to die a Santa Anita

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Canadian Don Schnell considers himself very lucky.

On Wednesday, California's storied Santa Anita racetrack closed indefinitely following the death of 21 horses there over 10 weeks. Escape Clause, a five-year-old, Canadian-bred mare owned and trained by Schnell, has run her last three races at Santa Anita, competing in both dirt and turf events and fortunately emerging unscathed each time.

"Oh yeah I'm blessed that nothing happened to her," Schnell, a 66-year-old native of Alliance, Alta., said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "Now that I see how many horses have broke down there, you know, I'm concerned about going back there.

"I consider her the soundest horse in the barn, maybe the soundest horse on the racetrack. She seems to be a throwback to three, four generations ago when horses ran many times and were just tougher back then."

Santa Anita, owned by Canadian Frank Stronach, has been shut down indefinitely as officials try to determine what the problems are. Seven deaths happened during races on the dirt oval, five on the turf course and nine while training on dirt.

Schnell has been in the racing game 45 years and has never seen such a deadly stretch.

"No, never that severe," he said. "But they've never experienced 12 inches of rain and cold weather either (in Arcadia, Calif.).

"My theory is it's because of all the rain they've had and they can't keep that track consistent."

Heavy rain and unusually cold temperatures have plagued California this winter. Santa Anita was also shut down for two days in February when Battle of Midway, the 2017 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile champion, was euthanized after breaking down during training.

The issues at Santa Anita have prompted Schnell and other trainers to ship their horses the day before races rather than come earlier and train there. Schnell kept Escape Clause in Phoenix to prepare for her three races at Santa Anita before making the seven-hour trek to California the day before each scheduled event.

That's hardly ideal because it gives the horse and jockey little time to get a read on the track. But it certainly beats the alternative.

"I know many people think that's the wrong way to do it," Schnell said. "But you have to look out for the horse."

The current shutdown couldn't have come at a worse time for Santa Anita. Two of its marquee events — the Santa Anita Handicap and San Felipe Stakes, a Kentucky Derby prep race — were scheduled for this weekend.

Escape Clause has a win and fourth-place finish in her two starts this season for US$72,000 in earnings. In 2018, she registered nine victories over 13 starts (with a second and two thirds) for $226,419 to stand in the running for a Sovereign Award as Canada's champion older female.

Over her career, Escape Clause has 19 wins from 29 starts (also three seconds and three thirds) for $435,500 in earnings. Not bad for a $3,200 yearling purchase.

Escape Clause had a win and two fourth-place finishes in her three trips to Santa Anita. After winning the $100,000 Grade III La Canada Stakes over 1 1/16 miles on dirt Jan 12, she was fourth behind winner Marley's Freedom in the Grade 2 $200,000 Santa Monica over seven furlongs on dirt Feb. 16.

"We hooked up with who I consider to be the world's fastest sprinter in Marley's Freedom," Schnell said. "She's too good, too fast . . . Escape Clause wants to go 1 1/16 miles or further.

"The way she runs she relaxes going long to have a bigger kick at the end. If you're going shorter you have to hustle so much the first part."

Schnell was eyeing a return to Santa Anita but after running Escape Clause in a stakes race March 24 at Sunland Park in Sun City, Ariz. He's unsure exactly where Escape Clause will go after Sunland Park, but is hopeful Santa Anita officials can find the problem and fix it to ensure safe conditions for both horses and their riders.

"They've got machines and radar and soil samples and all this stuff," he said. "I think they should be able to fix it, I'm sure hoping they can.

"The key is a horse doesn't break down usually from one race. It's like chopping a tree down, it takes many swings of the axe. Sometimes the track isn't perfect and it's the last swing and that's the horrifying part of it."

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press