SANTA ANITA FATALATIES MAY HAVE A RIPPLE EFFECT
There was a spike in horse fatalities during races at Santa Anita Horse Track, more than 20 dead in about three and a half months.
Abnormal weather was one possible cause.
There was scrutiny on whether horsemen were pressured to race more horses, because fuller fields help maximize profits.
It was determined that a lack of sufficient protocols and oversight by the racing office had possibly allowed unfit horses to run.
For people who have followed the spate of fatal injuries to horses during Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet — a 30th death occurred Saturday morning — it’s a familiar script. Only these details come from Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, where 21 horses died between Nov. 30, 2011, and March 18, 2012.
In New York, the fatalities initiated the formation of a state task force that spent five months examining every aspect of the sport’s culture. The horsemen involved all were granted anonymity in pursuit of the truth.
The result was a 100-page document, with an additional 100 pages of exhibits, suggesting reforms that became a roadmap to safer racing. Since then, the fatality rate at New York Racing Assn. tracks has dropped from 2.19 to 1.20 per 1,000 starts.
Among the changes, New York hired a state equine medical director, created a protocol for handling necropsies — for animals, the equivalent of an autopsy — and set rules for the use of certain medications. California was, at the time, ahead of the game with some safety measures. But other states were slow to similarly respond.
“One of the things that came out of the reforms was that a lot of work can be done to improve safety,” said Alan Foreman, a member of the New York task force. “[The report] was underappreciated in the industry. In hindsight, the industry didn’t embrace it.”
In 2018, the national average was 1.68 deaths per 1,000 racing starts. Santa Anita averaged 2.04. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, was at 2.73.
With similar safety measures in place, it is difficult to explain the difference in death rates between New York and Santa Anita, the jewel of California tracks.
Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, has a couple of theories. “One of our challenges is we have bone dry weather conditions, although this year we had the opposite,” he said. “Some humidity makes it easier to maintain a track. And California has a go, go, go way of racing compared to other jurisdictions. Our trainers train hard and we have more [workouts] per start than any other state.”
Horse racing is not a sport that is typically quick to embrace change. Even in the midst of crisis, the three biggest race track operators — the Stronach Group, which runs Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif., and Pimlico and Laurel in Maryland; Churchill Downs Inc.; and the New York Racing Assn. — haven’t agreed on many issues, including whether there should be a national organization to oversee medication rules.
“This is a funny sport with a very short memory,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, chief equine veterinarian in Kentucky and a member of the New York task force. “It has a short-range view looking forward. The next overnight [entries] is the future.”
New York’s task force was comprised of Scollay; Foreman, an equine and racing attorney who also was chief executive of the Thoroughbred Horseman’s Assn.; Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey; and Scott Walker, an equine surgeon who is now the chief veterinarian in New York.
“The report was groundbreaking,” Bailey said. “These were brilliant people with insight into the medical issues and the legal issues. I was there to offer a different perspective. Nothing was left out. If I had known half of what I [learned] it would have been hard for me to get on the back of a horse.”
The group determined that more than half the fatalities possibly could have been prevented.
“We concluded that 11 might have been saved with better protocols, better rules, better policies,” Foreman said. “… We have to be able to admit that. You have to be able to say that those 11 would break down in the future. History shows we were on the right track.”
Horse racing is governed by more than 30 state agencies. And while there are similarities between the rules in California and New York, elsewhere the regulations can vary dramatically. For example, in California jockeys are prohibited from whipping a horse more than three times without giving it a chance to respond. In New York, it’s 10 times. When American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby in 2015, jockey Victor Espinoza was allowed to hit him 31 times down the stretch. Also, medical records don’t always follow horses from state to state.
Seven years ago, there were some commonalities among the horse deaths in New York. Seventeen were during claiming races, in which the horses are up for sale for a certain price. The other four were in maiden special weights, races for horses that have never won. All occurred on the same dirt surface.
Race horses are seen during their morning workout at Santa Anita Park racetrack on June 15, 2019 in Arcadia, California. Following criticism from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and a call by the California Horse Racing Board for the owners to shut down racing for the rest of its meet due to of horse fatalities, track owners have agreed to implement a “safety review team” of five independent veterinarians to evaluate all horses prior to the remaining races at the track. If just one member of the team questions the fitness of a horse, that horse will not be permitted to race. A total of 29 horses have died at the Santa Anita Park since the season began in December. More than 60 horses have reportedly perished at the track since the start of 2018.
Race horses are seen during their morning workout at Santa Anita Park racetrack on June 15, 2019 in Arcadia, California.