California Lawmakers Press Racing Officials on Horse Deaths

Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, where 25 thoroughbred racehorses have died since December 2018. Animal rights activists want the track shut down in order to protect horses. (Photo by MARTIN MACIAS JR./Courthouse News Service)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – State and national racing officials told California lawmakers Wednesday that a recent spate of horse deaths at a Los Angeles area track is an “anomaly” and restated their position that they maintain the “gold standard” in health and racing practices.

A horse that was raced Sunday at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, suffered a catastrophic injury and had to be euthanized by track doctors, becoming the 25th thoroughbred horse to have died at the park since December 2018.

The deaths sparked outrage from officials – including Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey who opened an investigation into the incidents – and from animal rights activists who called for a statewide ban on the sport.

The California Horse Racing Board voted in recent months to ban the use of both a racing whip and a blood-thinning medication for horses, though critics of the move have said the efforts have little to do with conditions on tracks that led to the horses’ injuries.

At a joint hearing Wednesday of the state’s Senate and Assembly governmental organization committees, lawmakers said that while they would like to see the industry continue, reforms must be implemented quickly.

Committee co-chair Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said state officials lack authority to quickly and comprehensively respond to an uptick in horse deaths.

Along with Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, Dodd introduced a bill in April that would allow the state racing board to suspend races if dangerous conditions exist.

Racing officials, jockeys and horse owners at the hearing told lawmakers Wednesday that reforms would be implemented to ensure the horses’ safety.

Belinda Stronach, president of The Stronach Group, which operates Santa Anita Park, said the track hosts the “gold standard” in the nation for health and safety practices for horses.

“We are not doing this for good PR,” Stronach said. “We are doing this to find meaningful reforms.”

While park operators have not determined the underlying cause of all 25 deaths, they said a rainy winter season made the soil at Santa Anita more unstable than in recent years.

The track was closed for most of March as park operators brought in national experts to comb the surface for clues on why so many horses were suffering life-ending injuries.

Racing Board Executive Director Rick Baedeker said that while officials quickly picked up on the rising number of deaths at Santa Anita and sought to address them quickly, the deaths continued at a rapid pace.

“It’s fair to say we expected it to be an anomaly,” Baedeker said. “We expected things to return to normal. Instead they ramped up dramatically in a short period of time.”

Gray asked whether euthanasia was always necessary in situations where horses are seriously injured.

Rick Arthur, the medical director of the state racing board, said that repairing fractures is nearly impossible due to the delicate nature of horses’ bone structures and their need to stand on all four legs after treatment.

Despite the recent streak of deaths, Arthur said the Golden State is setting the example for horse safety nationwide by introducing bans on racing whips, banning blood-thinning medications and holding track veterinarians to the highest standards of reporting a horse’s condition over time.

“With the safety measures that are now in place, racing has never been safer in California,” Arthur told lawmakers. “Sadly, it is probably in large part because of what happened at Santa Anita Park.”

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