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Santa Anita Park Averages 50 Horse Deaths A Year. This Year Is Nothing New

Jockeys in colorful uniforms ride horses on a dirt track
The 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 1, 2014 in Arcadia.
(Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images)
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Thirty horses died this past season at Santa Anita Park, a horse racing facility in Arcadia. Around the time of the nineteenth death, media outlets — including LAist — started to report on the fatalities.

The surge of news coverage suggested that such numbers are out of the ordinary, but the equine fatalities during the track's 2018-2019 season are consistent with the track's history; since 1995, Santa Anita Park has averaged 50 horse deaths per year.

"It's nothing unusual," says Patrick Battuello, an animal rights activist who runs the website Horse Racing Wrongs. "This is business as usual, these horses dying."

Santa Anita is one of ten horse racing and training facilities in California that are regulated by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB).

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Of those ten facilities, four are privately operated tracks, including Santa Anita Park, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Golden Gate Fields and the Los Alamitos Race Course, five are home to annual fairs — like the Big Fresno Fair and the Alameda County Fair — which host live horse racing, and one is used for training only.

The privately owned tracks report their equine deaths to the state every year. Those numbers have been relatively consistent for nearly 25 years, with the exception of a spike in deaths between 2007 and 2011 at Los Alamitos and Golden Gate Fields (see table below).

The most recent publicly available numbers are for the 2017-2018 horse racing seasons. According to CHRB's 2017-2018 annual report:

  • 41 horses died at the Los Alamitos Race Course
  • 30 horses died at Golden Gate Fields
  • 12 horses died at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club
  • 41 horses died at Santa Anita Park

The same four tracks reported the following number of horse deaths from the 1994-1995 season.
According to CHRB's 1994-1995 annual report:

  • 38 horses died at the Premier Harness Racing Association and the Horseman's Quarter Horse Racing Association, operating out of the Los Alamitos Race Course.
  • 22 or 23 horses died at the Pacific Racing Association, operating out of Golden Gate Fields (a discrepancy in the math makes it unclear which number is correct).
  • 19 horses died at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
  • 45 horses died at the Los Angeles Turf Club and the Oak Tree Racing Association, operating out of Santa Anita Park

The injuries

CHRB categorizes horse deaths in one of three ways: Racing, training or "other."

Racing and training deaths are related to injuries sustained on the track. The "other" category refers to deaths that are not exercise-related (CHRB cites gastro-intestinal diseases, respiratory disease and neurological diseases as examples).

According to 2018 data from the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System and the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which conduct postmortem exams on some of the state's deceased racehorses, 81% of deaths among the animals examined in the previous year were racing or training fatalities. Many of those injuries, such as severe damage to the front legs, weren't fatal as standalone events, but resulted in euthanasia.

Some injuries can be difficult to treat in horses, said Dr. Rick Arthur, the Equine Medical Director at UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine, who is also an advisor to CHRB. Arthur maintains offices at UC Davis and at Santa Anita Park, the latter of which is "so I am more readily available to CHRB personnel," he told LAist.

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"There are certain types of injuries that are not readily amenable to surgical repair," Arthur said. "For example, the humerus, the bone between the shoulder and elbow, in the horse is a very large bone. In adults, it's just not repairable. There's no way to get in there and repair that fracture that would allow that horse to stand up and utilize the limb at all."

There can also be challenges with the recovery process. "Because of their weight," he said, "they simply can't stay lying down for any long period of time."

Often, horses who sustain injuries that result in euthanasia had undetected pre-existing damage to the injured area, according to Ryan Carpenter, a veterinarian who practices at Santa Anita Park.

"When it goes undiagnosed, it becomes [more likely] to propogate or become more severe," he said.

The most common such damage is in the animal's front fetlock — a joint towards the bottom of the leg — which can shatter if it's further stressed by continuing to race or train.

Some experts believe these types of injuries were exacerbated during the first few months of the 2018-2019 season at Santa Anita because of the excessive rain at the time.

According to Rick Baedeker, CHRB's executive director, the track required an unusual amount of maintenance in the wake of January and February's storms. To accommodate the weather, maintenance crews compacted and sealed the track. Given what Baedeker calls this winter's "extraordinary" rainfall, this process may have been done repeatedly.

"Normally, the seal is no big deal," he says. "The problem is when we seal the track tonight and it rains tomorrow, then there's another storm and we seal it again. Now we have compacted that surface twice in a short period of time... Many people believe that caused the racetrack [at Santa Anita] to be uneven and harder than normal," which would have put even more stress on animals' legs than usual.

But trainers may also have been pressured to race their horses during that time. According to the trade publication BloodHorse, trainer Shelbe Ruis tweeted in early February that Santa Anita management was pushing her to race her horse on a track that she didn't believe was in acceptable shape.

In a tweet that was later deleted, Ruis reportedly wrote, "I was harassed from the new racing secretary for scratching my horse for unsafe conditions...They don't care about horse safety at Santa Anita."

Ruis did not respond to a request for comment.

Why the attention this year?

Santa Anita Park recorded a standard number of horse deaths this year. What's not standard is the widespread, mainstream attention being paid to them. Outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, CNN and others have reported on the fatalities.

Track officials have responded to the media attention with a handful of public statements and some protocol changes.

In response to the training death of four-year-old filly Lets Light The Way, Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park, said in a March 6 statement that, "The loss of just one horse is one too many." Lets Light The Way was the twenty-first horse to die this past season (in the fiscal year before Ritvo's arrival at Santa Anita, 64 horses died at the venue).

The week after Lets Light The Way's death, three-year-old filly Princess Lili B became the twenty-second equine fatality at Santa Anita. In response, Belinda Stronach, the chairman and president of The Stronach Group, penned an open letter to the public and the media.

"What has happened at Santa Anita over the last few weeks is beyond heartbreaking," she wrote. "It is unacceptable to the public and, as people who deeply love horses, to everyone at The Stronach Group and Santa Anita."

Stronach went on to announce new measures allegedly designed to protect the health and safety of their equine athletes. Those measures included enacting a ban on Lasix, a controversial drug frequently administered to horses on the same day they're racing; reconsidering the way jockeys use riding crops, and increased testing for equine athletes.

Animal activist Patrick Battuello says he's not sure why the media picked up on the story this year, but that he thinks the attention marks a change.

"Santa Anita is the tipping point, in my estimation," he says. "Santa Anita has changed everything, and I don't think it's ever going back."

Crisis management

Meanwhile, The Stronach Group has hired Mercury, a crisis public relations firm.

Emails to The Stronach Group's communications team generate an automatic response directing the inquiring party to contact associates at Mercury.

Calls and emails to Mercury for this story were unreturned.

Sharon McNary contributed reporting to this article.

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