After a Slew of Equine Fatalities, What's Happening at Santa Anita Park?

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here comes a time in every sport where controversy leads to reformation, and reformation leads to divide. Thoroughbred horse racing is going through one of these periods of growth. At the center of this tale is one famed racetrack, Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. Home to some of the top trainers in the country such as Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill, the picturesque landmark is hallowed ground.

But the venue's acclaim doesn't protect it from tragedy. Between opening day on December 26, 2018 and March 5, 2019, Santa Anita reported 22 horse fatalities during racing and training activities. The alarming amount of deaths sparked concern with management, racing fans, and the media.  

Editor's note: As of April 1, 2019, the tally has risen to 23 equine fatalities since December 26, 2018. 

For horse racing, this attention has become a pivotal time in the sport’s history. The world has a magnifying glass on Santa Anita Park. Such scrutiny could be unwelcome, but this is horse racing's opportunity to enact new rules, change the conversation, and regain the confidence of the nation.

In reaction to these deaths, The Stronach Group — owners of Sanita Anita Park — closed the track on March 5th to complete a full evaluation of the dirt and turf surfaces and review their protocol. Racing and training were also immediately suspended.

Photo by Suzanne Neubauer/CC.

Following the sudden closure, which management listed as indefinite, many throughout the sport were left speculating. Was the racetrack maintenance not up to standards? With record setting rainfall in California, did conditions affect the racetrack? Were race day vettings not rigorous enough? Where do we go from here?

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But a more immediate question needed to be answered. With thousands of hot-walkers, riders, grooms, trainers, and horses depending on the sport, speculations quickly turned into fear. No racing means no income — for anyone. How are people going to earn their paychecks?  

New Rules Aim to Protect Horses

On March 14th, over a week after closing the track, Santa Anita Park issued a response to the situation that unfolded in the months prior, labeling the events as “unacceptable” and listed horse racing as, “the last great sporting legacy platform to be modernized.” In reaction to what they called a “watershed moment,” the track was to implement a complete revision of the current medication policy to align with the strict International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) standards. These policies mirror the standards that IFHA holds horse racing to in Europe, but Santa Anita would be the first in the United States to enact them.

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The biggest change is the restriction of race day medications, including Lasix — a heavily disputed drug used to reduce and prevent exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhages, or bleeds, while horses are intensively exercising. New policies also include increasing the ban on legal therapeutic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), joint injections, and shockwave therapy.

Photo by Suzanne Neubauer/CC.

Additionally, The Stronach Group addressed the long disputed use of crops during training and racing, stating that the cushion crops jockeys carry “should only be used as a corrective safety measure. While we firmly believe our jockeys have not purposely been mistreating their mounts, it is time to make this change.”

The letter to the industry did not elaborate further on the use of crops, but a sign was placed at the entrance of the track saying, “Use of crops for safety purposes only. No striking allowed.”

Along with these major changes the track will also implement full transparency into vet records. They are stationing more veterinarians throughout the track and will conduct more rigorous race day vettings.

Uncertainties Linger

How these rules will be implemented and regulated is still a concern. Many say the response to these fatalities have left more questions than answers and some accuse track management of reacting emotionally rather than scientifically.

How will these changes be mandated? What are the repercussions for those that break the rules? Will other race tracks follow suit? Will these new policies solve the issues at Santa Anita Park?

Only time will tell. Following a surface evaluation by Santa Anita Park and outside organizations, the outer dirt track — where most of the incidents occurred — proved that there were no serious issues with the material of the track itself. Santa Anita Park announced that racing will resume on March 29th.   

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Some of these new policies will be phased in. The Lasix policy will not apply to horses born prior to 2018. These horses are allowed to continue to use the anti-bleeding medication, though only at a maximum of 50 percent of the current allowable levels. The thought is that as the older horses retire and younger horses come, the rule will slowly create medication-free racing at Santa Anita Park.

It will be interesting to see how the owners and trainers react to the acute rule changes in the coming years. Will they comply or will the distaste in the situation pressure them to relocate to another racetrack? The industry can agree that there is a problem, and like most modernizing sports comes growing pains, reevaluation, and a paradigm shift. However, there is a learning curve to major change such as that which has been announced at Santa Anita Park.

The Stronach Group closed out their letter stating that, “While the cause of the injuries on the racetrack might be varied, they have one thing in common: the industry has yet to do everything that can be done to prevent them. That changes today.”

Photo by Suzanne Neubauer/CC.

Industry professionals have banned together to help redirect the conversation surrounding the controversy at Santa Anita. They are reinvigorating social media with accounts that encourage industry leaders and fans to share their positive stories about the sport through the hashtag #IAmHorseRacing.

It should also be noted that horse racing fatalities have declined over the last decade. Launched in 2008 by The Jockey Club, an organization dedicated to the improvement of Thoroughbred breeding and racing, the Equine Injury DatabaseTM, shows an average of 1.68 horses per 1,000 starts were fatally injured in 2018, down from 2.00 horses per 1,000 starts in 2009. The low average is 1.54 in 2015.

But of course, one death is still too many.

No one wants to see a horse suffer from a catastrophic event, but with no governing body, nationwide adoption of regulations is currently unfeasible. Although the sport is reeling from the fatalities at Santa Anita Park, new policies have opened conversation to how the sport can grow and evolve.

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Feature photo by Jack Kendall/CC.

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Written by Ilana Cramer

At a young age, Ilana Cramer quickly realized unicorns didn't exist and turned to racehorses instead. A lifelong equestrian, Ilana's passion for telling untold stories has taken her from the backside of racetracks to the eventing, show jumping and dressage worlds. Ilana resides in Baltimore, Maryland, where she events her OTTB Rock Harbor.