Judge Blocks Protesters From Embattled Horse-Racing Track

Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, where 23 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) – More than 30 race horses have died in the last year at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, prompting outrage from activists and elected officials across the Golden State. But organized protests of the facility by animal rights activists will not take place on racetrack property, a Los Angeles judge ruled Thursday.

The racetrack is set to host the two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championship in early November, a series of thoroughbred races attended by over 118,000 horse racing fans – an ideal venue to protest the treatment and deaths of the horses.

This past March, protesters said they were barred by Santa Anita staff from entering the park to hand out leaflets. Guards became violent and physically assaulted protesters, according to their free speech lawsuit against park owner the Stronach Group.

The latest horse to die at Santa Anita Park, a 3-year-old colt named Emtech, was euthanized on the track shortly after a race on Sept. 28. The colt broke both its front legs, according to a statement by the Stronach Group.

Prior to Emtech’s death, Gov. Gavin Newsom told the New York Times the 30-plus horse deaths at Santa Anita was unacceptable.

“I’ll tell you, talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform. That’s horse racing,” Newsom said. “Incredible abuses to these precious animals and the willingness to just to spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace.”

On Thursday, LA County Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin, Jr. said Santa Anita Park was built as a single-purpose venue – for horse racing. While it may seem like a public forum, Fruin said the park is private property and the owner’s property rights trump the protesters’ rights to free speech.

“People are entitled to express their views, observations” outside the park gates, Fruin said, rejecting arguments by the protesters’ attorney Matthew Strugar that the public has an “interest in speaking out to the death toll at Santa Anita.”

Emily Evitt with Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp represented the Stronach Group at Thursday’s hearing.

After Thursday’s hearing, plaintiff Heather Wilson – who claims guards put her in a headlock and ripped her camera from her chest – said she has protested at various other privately owned locations that are open to the public and has never been denied access.

“I don’t see what makes this racetrack so special,” Wilson said.

“We are still holding vigils for the horses who have died. They’re the real victims here. We’ll continue to do that.”

This past spring, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office said it would launch a criminal investigation into the welfare and safety of horses at the park, but no announcements have been made since then.

In June, Newsom signed a bill giving the California Horse Racing Board greater enforcement authority to move or suspend events during dangerous racing conditions. But short of an allegation of an actual violation, the board is limited in its ability to shutter races.

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