As the Triple Crown season approaches, the talk should be about contenders for the Kentucky Derby. Instead, dead horses and canceled races are hot topics after Santa Anita Park suspended thoroughbred racing because of a spike in fatalities that has cast doubt on the safety of its racing surface.
A filly named Lets Light the Way was euthanized on Tuesday after shattering a sesamoid bone at the ankle joint. It was the 21st horse fatality in racing or training at Santa Anita since Dec. 26. That is more than the 20 deaths that occurred over 122 racing days in 2017, according to Jockey Club data.
“The safety, health and welfare of the horses and jockeys is our top priority,” Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns the track, said in a statement. “While we are confident further testing will confirm the soundness of the track, the decision to close is the right thing to do at this time.”
It was the second time in eight days that the historic track below the San Gabriel Mountains a few miles east of Pasadena, Calif., was shut down. The closure has forced the postponement on Saturday of the track’s signature race, the Santa Anita Handicap, which was won by the storied horse Seabiscuit in 1940, and the San Felipe Handicap, a major prep race for 3-year-olds trying to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Santa Anita officials had little choice. Neither animal rights activists nor casual sports fans have the stomach to see a horse be put down after a catastrophic injury. Ever since the Kentucky Derby in 2008, when the filly Eight Belles had to be euthanized after finishing second, racing officials have worried that another high-profile breakdown could put the sport out of business.
“Quite frankly, we are no longer at a place or time where these incidents can withstand the status quo,” Jim Gagliano, the president and chief operating officer of the Jockey Club, said. “The health and safety of the horse and rider is of the utmost importance, and the entire racing industry has to redouble our efforts to prevent these tragedies.”
In a 2012 series, The New York Times showed that 24 horses died each week at racetracks across America, many of them because of over-medication or a lack of regulatory protection. It prompted meaningful regulations across the United States that led to a decline in the death rate of horses.
In 2017, for example, there were 1.61 deaths per 1,000 starts in the United States compared with two deaths per 1,000 in 2009. In California, horse deaths have decreased by 60 percent over the last 13 years, with most of the reduction coming in the last couple of years, according to the California Horse Racing Board.
So why have 21 horses died in such a short time?
Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the Californian agency, pointed to a number of factors: heavy rains, a depleted horse population and impatience on the part of trainers and racetrack officials to get the most out of limited stock.
“Some people haven’t been as cautious as they should have on both sides,” Arthur said.
Nearly 12 inches of rain have fallen since the meeting began, which has made maintaining a dirt track difficult, especially when “sealing” a track, or packing the dirt tight enough so that no water penetrates its surface. It can mean concrete footing for fragile 1,100-pound horses with ankles as slim as a Coke bottle.
The track was closed on Feb. 26 and 27 after the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner, Battle of Midway, was fatally injured during a workout. A track safety expert from the University of Kentucky, Mick Peterson, was brought in to search for possible irregularities that might explain the spike in fatalities.
He didn’t find any. Shortly after the course was reopened, however, the filly Eskenforadrink became the 20th fatality, breaking down during a race and later being euthanized.
Track officials and horse trainers have, indeed, grown impatient with each other.
Ritvo is a trouble shooter for the Stronach Group, and was dispatched to California from its Maryland tracks in an effort to make Santa Anita more profitable. He has implemented policies to encourage trainers to run their horses more often in the afternoon races to ensure bigger fields in the hope of attracting more betting. The horsemen, in turn, grumbled when the racetrack was shut down for the recent testing, interrupting their training schedules to make particular races.
Statistically at least, California trainers appear to be more demanding of their horses. Horses at Santa Anita currently average 3.02 workouts per start compared with 0.88 workouts per start for horses running at Gulfstream Park in Florida and 0.42 at Aqueduct in New York, according to data compiled by Equibase.
Arthur believes more regulation and vigilance can be exerted during the morning training hours, when nine of the deaths occurred. When a horse is to run in a race, it is examined by state veterinarians for soundness and can undergo drug testing.
“In the mornings, we leave the training to the trainers and private vets,” Arthur said.
As Santa Anita officials try to figure out why their racetrack has become so dangerous, it will also have to deal with a mounting public relations problem. Animal rights activists have protested outside the gates, and PETA has called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to close the track and asked the Los Angeles County district attorney to open an investigation into the use of drugs that mask injuries.
It is a problem that a beleaguered industry has long anticipated. In 2016 and again last year, members of the greyhound racing industry have anchored panels at the University of Arizona’s annual Global Symposium on Racing. They have spoken about the missteps made as their sport has dwindled to 17 or so racetracks.
“Is It Possible That Horse Racing Is One Referendum Away From Disappearing in Your Jurisdiction?” the discussion was titled in December. “Lessons Learned From the Greyhound Industry.”