SAN DIEGO – Embattled horse trainer Jerry Hollendorfer won a big battle for his livelihood in court here Friday, beating back a big-time race track that tried to ban him after he became the public face of a crisis involving dead race horses in California.
Hollendorfer, 73, said afterward he will now go back to work at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and has no plans to fundamentally change the way he treats and trains his horses.
“I think we’re doing plenty to ensure the safety of our stable,” Hollendorfer said after a judge here lifted a ban against him by the Del Mar track. “And if somebody else has another suggestion how to do more, then I’m certainly willing to listen to somebody’s opinion on that.”
The Hall of Fame trainer had been banned from several race tracks after six of his horses died in racing or training at San Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields from December through June. Citing those fatal breakdowns, Del Mar banned him, too. But Hollendorfer sued Del Mar last week and won a preliminary injunction in court Friday that will allow him to race at Del Mar’s annual summer meet, which started July 17 and lasts through Labor Day.
Judge Ronald Frazier listened to both sides at a hearing Friday in San Diego County Superior Court and affirmed the ruling he had tentatively issued in favor of Hollendorfer on Thursday.
His ruling came after a strenuous argument against Hollendorfer by Del Mar’s attorney, Chris Jaczko, who said his client had the right to make a “business decision” to shut out Hollendorfer. But the judge saw it differently and viewed Del Mar’s decision to ban the trainer as “arbitrary and capricious,” meaning it was made on more of a whim than a fair process. He suggested Hollendorfer’s case instead should be decided through an arbitration hearing.
“Are you not jumping to the conclusion that the deaths of these horses is somehow related to something that Mr. Hollendorfer has done?” the judge asked Jaczko.
Del Mar’s attorney replied that he didn’t need to make a finding on that. What mattered, he said, was that Del Mar had a right to exclude Hollendorfer for business reasons, such as all the bad publicity that comes with a spike in catastrophic breakdowns in horse racing.
“In the best interests of our business, we don’t want to have Mr. Hollendorfer here,” Jaczko told the judge. “I’m not saying he did what he did to kill his horses. We’re saying that in the best interests of our business, we don’t want the attention. We don’t want the clamor that we’re not doing everything we can to change business as usual. That’s what I’m saying. Those are rational business decisions that make it not arbitrary.”
Jaczko and Del Mar President Josh Rubinstein both noted in court filings that Hollendorfer’s horses accounted for 15% of the combined recent deaths at Golden Gate Fields (two of nine) and Santa Anita Park (four of 30). Both of those tracks are owned by The Stronach Group, which banned him from its tracks and kicked him out of Santa Anita’s stalls in June. No other trainer at Santa Anita had more than two horse fatalities, leading Santa Anita to take action against him amid a public-relations crisis that lacked a clear causation.
But Judge Frazier’s decision in court didn’t weigh Hollendorfer’s training methods or safety record. The ruling instead hinged on whether Hollendorfer was likely to prevail at a fuller hearing on the merits of the case in the future, as well as the relative harm he might suffer if he was not granted an injunction in the meantime.
The ruling only applies to Del Mar, not other track bans. Del Mar said in a statement Friday that it would abide by the order of the court.
“We will continue our work with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that Del Mar remains among the safest thoroughbred racetracks in the industry,” Del Mar’s statement said Friday.
Del Mar still has options, and it’s unclear what would happen if Hollendorfer’s horses broke down there. The track could request an arbitration hearing.
Such a hearing just might not happen any time soon. Hollendorfer’s attorney, Drew Couto, said afterward that his schedule likely would not allow for an arbitration hearing in the near future. He again described his client’s death toll as an aberration and blamed the spike in deaths on mismanagement at Santa Anita.
Hollendorfer said the entire ordeal has been difficult.
“I’ve lost at least half my stable” since the Santa Anita ban, Hollendorfer said. He said that a big part of his business is lost “and you can’t count on it coming back.”
Another attorney working on Hollendorfer’s behalf, Darrell Vienna, told the trainer after court to “get your jeans on” and get ready to return to the track. Vienna represented the California Thoroughbred Trainers, an industry group that had joined Hollendorfers’ suit against Del Mar.
“Everybody’s looking for cover,” Vienna said after court about the fallout from 30 horse deaths at Santa Anita from December through June. He considered the judge’s decision Friday a bit of an upset victory.
“The interesting thing about this case is this is one of the first times in which power didn’t prevail in racing,” Vienna said, referring to the big-business race track at Del Mar.
Hollendorfer wasn’t sure exactly when he’ll return to Del Mar, but it likely will be soon.
“I didn’t see any reason why they denied me in the first place, and apparently the judge agreed with that,” he said.