In little more than three months, 23 horses have died at Santa Anita, the Thoroughbred racetrack in Arcadia, California. The most recent death on Sunday comes just days after the 85-year-old facility reopened following its first-ever closing to evaluate soil conditions.
The deaths are prompting new scrutiny of horse racing.
“Not just Santa Anita, but the entire sport has been under siege from animal rights advocates who have gotten the attention of the general public because of the number of equine deaths,” reports LA Times.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Racing had Just Resumed When the Latest Death Occurred
Santa Anita had suspended horse racing after 21 horses died at the famed racetrack since December 26. The track resumed racing, having been reopened for limited training, in late March after an investigation into the cause of the deaths.
The 22nd death occurred during the limited training open window while racing was still suspended.
After one day of successful racing, Arms Runner fell in Grade 3 race turf, injuring his leg and causing the horse behind him, La Sardane, to fall. Arms Runner was taken off the track and later euthanized. La Sardane, a 5-year-old mare, got back on her feet seemingly uninjured.
People For the Ethical Treatment (PETA) Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo sai in a statement:
This sickening video of Arms Runner in the last minutes of his life shows exactly why PETA is calling on Govenor Gavin Newsom to form an independent panel to investigate training and veterinary practices in California. While the implementation of new rules at Santa Anita racetrack last week represented the first progress in racing reform in decades, it was nowhere near enough to save these horses’ lives. The California Horse Racing Board needs to pass emergency rules right now banning all drugs and banishing all trainers with medication violations from California tracks. Anything short of this is inadequate.
According to Equibase, Arms Runner had three wins in 13 career starts and earnings of $125,292.
“It’s gut-wrenching,” said Tim Ritvo of the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park. “We’ll continue to review, look at all the medical records of the horse, and review all the data that we can and continue to investigate the causes of this.”
2. Rain and Soil Safety Might be to Blame
Before Arms Runner’s death, Santa Anita had closed for the first time in its 85-year-history to examine the soil. The park suspended racing on March 5.
“In whole, we feel confident in the track and we’re just being very proactive,” Ritvo said at the time. “We want to do all the testing that needs to be done. When we believe we’re in good shape, we’ll start to train over it again.”
“We think that (rain) could definitely contribute even though our experts are telling us not,” Ritvo said. “The tracks out here are built not for weather like that.”
“Santa Anita received 11-1/2 inches of rain and had unusually cold temperatures in February, but it’s unclear whether track conditions played a role in any of the fatalities,” reports CBS.
The park re-opened in early March for limited training when a 22nd horse died.
“The 3-year-old filly, Princess Lili ‘must have taken a funny step,’ causing her to break two ankles, trainer and owner David Bernstein told CNN affiliate KTLA. She had to be euthanized, he told the station,” reports CNN.
3. The United States and Canada are the Only Countries to Allow Same day Medication
“During the hiatus, racing executives imposed reduced limits on the common medication Lasix, blamed by some critics for exposing horses to trauma, and vowed to better diagnose pre-existing conditions that could lead to injuries. They pledged to regularly evaluate the track, which has fallen under scrutiny as excessive rains may have made it more treacherous (studies are inconclusive),” reports The New York Times.
The imposed decrease in Lasix usage was effective immediately before racing resumed March 30. Race officials banned the use of jockey whips as well, but after just one day of successful racing following the re-opening, Arms Runner fell.
Like Lasix, use of an anti-inflammatory drug called phenylbutazone is controversial. PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo issued the following statement on March 2 in response to the death of 4-year-old filly Eskenforadrink, the 20th horse to die in two months:
Twenty dead horses is 20 too many, and the only responsible action is for the track to close right away and stop this spiral of deaths. The California Horse Racing Board and Santa Anita must do this now, and law enforcement must begin an immediate investigation of trainers and veterinarians to find out whether injured horses were being forced to run. Virtually every Thoroughbred who races in California is given phenylbutazone, a strong anti-inflammatory drug, 24 hours before a race, and this can mask injuries. Whether there was an issue with medication or the weather—or both—it’s clear that no horse should be on that track.
“Stronach’s desire to eliminate jockey whip use during racing was not decided on immediately by the [California Horse Racing Board] CHRB, but a proposal to that effect was approved to be sent out for a 45-day public comment period. For the proposal to become law, it would need to be approved again by the CHRB and also be approved by California’s Office of Administrative Law,” reports Horse Racing Nation.
4. PETA Thanked Santa Anita for Taking Action
In a statement issued March 14, PETA thanked Santa Anita for closing:
PETA thanks Santa Anita for standing up to all the trainers, veterinarians, and owners who have used any means—from the whip to the hypodermic syringe—to force injured or unfit horses to run. This is a watershed moment for racing, and PETA urges every track to recognize that the future is now and to follow suit.
5. PETA Wants California Governor Newsom to Launch an Investigation
Animal rights activists protested horse racing deaths outside Santa Anita Park while the park underwent investigation in March.
PETA issued a statement on March 31 following Arms Runner’s death:
“Over the past two weeks, Thoroughbred owners and trainers and the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) have argued about medications, whipping, and the public perception of horse racing. But they did not take every measure needed to protect the horses. Both horses ran on the drug Lasix, which is known to cause dehydration and electrolyte loss. All drugs need to be banned entirely, and the known-safest racing surface—a synthetic track—must be used. Furthermore, PETA calls on Governor Newsom to urgently form an independent panel to investigate the training and veterinary practices in California racing, including the use of bisphosphonates and other medications that reportedly have been used indiscriminately. If the CHRB does not take every possible action to protect the horses, then racing should not be allowed to continue.”