ARCADIA (AP) — Thirty horse deaths over the winter at Santa Anita. The first disqualification for interference in Kentucky Derby history. A horse tossing his jockey at the start of the Preakness and running around the track rider-less. Six more deaths at Santa Anita this fall.
A tragic, wild and unusual year in horse racing culminates with the Breeders’ Cup world championships this weekend at Santa Anita, where the fatalities have led to investigations, outrage from the public — including Gov. Gavin Newsom — and animal rights activists demanding the end of racing in California.
Those who make their living from the sport — trainers, jockeys, grooms, exercise riders and stable hands — and its fans are holding their breath that the 14 Breeders’ Cup races on Friday and Saturday worth $30 million in purses go off safely.
“We need some good things happening here in California,” said Bob Baffert, the two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer based at the picturesque track set against the San Gabriel Mountains.
Racing analyst Randy Moss added, “It’s obviously critically important for the Breeders’ Cup that they get through this weekend without an incident.”
The string of deaths that began last December didn’t deter owners and trainers from around the world from bringing their horses to the Breeders’ Cup, whose board voted unanimously to keep the richest two days in racing at Santa Anita rather than relocate this year.
“There were amazing steps taken in the late spring to address those situations and the safety record following that were extraordinary,” said Craig Fravel, president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup who is leaving to work for The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and other tracks.
New York-based trainer Chad Brown said he had owners asking him whether it was safe to run in the Breeders’ Cup.
“But ultimately, we feel confident in Santa Anita’s management that the track will be safe,” he said.
The latest death occurred last Sunday when a 2-year-old filly hurt her right front leg in a race, an injury severe enough the track veterinarian decided to euthanize her. Two days earlier, a 6-year-old mare got hurt on the training track and was euthanized.
In all, six deaths have occurred since the track’s fall meet began Sept. 27. It ends on Sunday.
Earlier this year, the California Horse Racing Board and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office launched parallel investigations into the deaths after the numbers quickly shot up in the first three months of the winter meet.
The industry in California and elsewhere scrambled to put in place reforms designed to reduce potential injuries.
At Santa Anita, surface experts were flown in to assess whether nearly a foot of rain compromised the dirt track and racing was shut down in March. The Stronach Group quickly announced strict rules on medication use and added requirements for training and prerace exams of horses. A five-member team that must decide unanimously whether a horse can race was created.
“It was like a wakeup moment for racing,” Baffert said. “We need to do a better job, and trainers, everybody involved, I think we’re being more conscientious than before.”
Like everyone else, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has no clear-cut explanation for the spate of deaths.
“The majority of the problem was early in the year when they had torrential rain for two or three weeks,” said Mott, who is based on the East Coast. “Just watching from afar, it looked like they were up against it with the weather and maybe that particular track doesn’t do as well when they have a lot of rain like that.”
The ultimate solution might just be the most drastic: tear up the dirt track and go back to an artificial surface.
Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group, said Wednesday that Santa Anita is looking into that possibility.
In 2007, Santa Anita installed a mixture of silica sand, synthetic fibers, elastic fiber and granulated rubber with a wax coating after the California Horse Racing Board mandated the change for all of the state’s tracks. The surface experienced drainage problems the following year that cost the track 11 racing days, but extensive maintenance and addition of a liquid binder helped improve the surface, which was shown to reduce fatalities.
However, trainers and bettors were among those opposing the surface change and Santa Anita returned to natural dirt in 2010.
Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB’s equine medical director, said it would be up to ownership with the consensus of the horsemen to change surfaces again.
“There were people that were unhappy with the track in spite of the rather remarkable (decrease in injury) numbers,” Arthur said.
In December, the CHRB will release its report on the reasons for the 30 fatalities during Santa Anita’s last winter-spring meet.
“Veterinary personnel, safety stewards and others involved in track safety have been accumulating and analyzing the information to come to an understanding of how each death occurred in order to identify any common characteristics or causes and develop strategies to prevent similar injuries in the future,” spokesman Mike Marten said.
He said the report will include findings from the ongoing investigations, in which more than 120 subpoenas for records have been issued. Any possible CHRB rule or criminal violations will be made public.
“Until the full investigation is done and the information on the necropsies is back, it would be premature for any of us to comment,” Benson said. “We are going to continue to try to see what, if anything, can be done and what we can improve in our horse safety and welfare. If we do identify anything, we will make those changes.”
The district attorney’s office has yet to announce any findings from its probe.
The deaths have bookended a year in which Maximum Security became the first horse in 145 years to cross the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby and immediately get disqualified. Country House was declared the winner but skipped the Preakness and Belmont, the final two legs of the Triple Crown.
In the Preakness, Bodexpress stole the show when he dumped his jockey at the start and followed the leaders, looking like a contender at one point. The colt’s wild run became a social media sensation.
“A lot of people found that to be highly amusing,” Moss said.
The feel-good moment didn’t last.
When Santa Anita resumed racing in September, more horses died. Protesters gathered outside the track. Believing their side of the story wasn’t being heard and fearing their livelihoods were at stake, backstretch workers and jockeys countered with their own rallies.
“There’s a lot at stake, but this is an issue that’s got to be viewed from a long-term lens,” Moss said. “After six months, after eight months, after a year, compare Santa Anita to all the other racetracks around the country, and we’ll know a lot more then about exactly how these reforms are taking hold.”