UPDATE: Stronach Group Issues Statement

The Stronach Group, the owner of Santa Anita Park, has issued a statement promising sweeping changes to California racing after a 22nd horse broke down on the main track this morning. There have been no further statements issued about the surface of the track itself.

Santa Anita track under the San Gabriel Mountains. Photo by Ellen Levy Finch

Update March 14, 2019, 4:27 PM: The Stronach Group has issued a statement in the wake of yet another breakdown, the 22nd since the track’s winter meet opened and the first since the track was deemed repaired and ready for training after shutting down last week.

While the statement does not address the track surface, which had been thoroughly examined by professionals, it does promise sweeping changes made to Stronach Group tracks in California — Santa Anita and Golden Gate — with support from Del Mar.

Major points of change:

  • Banning the use of Lasix
  • Increasing the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids.
  • Complete transparency of all veterinary records.
  • Significantly increasing out-of-competition testing.
  • Increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race.
  • A substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.
  • Horses in training are only allowed therapeutic medication with a qualified veterinary diagnosis.

The full statement can be read here.

After thorough work and evaluation by track surface consultant Dennis Moore and the track crew, the Santa Anita main track is once again open for timed workouts, with racing tentatively scheduled to open again on March 22. The main track has been open for light work since Monday.

Santa Anita shut down last week after another horse broke down and was subsequently euthanized — the 21st horse to suffer a fatal injury since the track opened in late December. Initial speculation blamed the track surface, with the belief that southern California’s unusually high amount of rain this winter had severely deteriorated the dirt, perhaps far below the surface at the track’s base. The track is now in the exact same condition it was in the fall, according to Moore, before the winter rain.

Additionally, new safety protocols are now in play at Santa Anita: most notably, trainers must apply before working a horse on the track at least 24 hours prior, so that track veterinarians can identify “at-risk” horses. Risk factors include how recently a horse has worked or raced. Horses scheduled to work earlier today have already been flagged and were not approved to work. “Working a horse” in this context means an official timed workout, not a jog or gallop. Full details on the safety protocol can be found at Paulick Report.

However, with multiple factors still at play, there was no one all-encompassing solution to fixing the breakdown problem. Theories abound from drugs to racing on sealed tracks (when a track is packed down hard to allow water to run off rather than soak in) to timing to fitness, and no one really has all of the answers — or even knows for certain what the problem is.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that scientific research has proven in multiple studies that horses who race as two-year-olds are not any more likely to suffer injury or shortened careers than horses started later (here’s one such study from Australia). In fact, the data seems to suggest the opposite — horses who train and race at two may enjoy longer, sounder careers. Researchers placed emphasis on proper introduction and conditioning of a horse in order to train, however, and were careful to note that genetic predisposition to injury would still have an effect. Paulick Report released a wonderfully informative and in-depth look at common reader questions regarding breakdowns.

This long but thorough Q&A with Stronach Group’s chief operating officer Tim Ritvo has a wealth of information about how the safety protocols were formed and the “new normal” of horse racing at Santa Anita going forward.

Some themes have evolved over the past week about horse racing and its place in the world: is horse racing still relevant? Has the industry turned so in on itself that the mainstream no longer understands what is great about the sport, and only sees the negative? Is this the time for the industry to rally together and form one unifying governing body?

Here are some editorials tackling four different viewpoints on the issues raised over the past weeks at Santa Anita:

Arthur B. Hancock: “Put Hubris Aside, Rethink Position on Medication in Horse Racing” (Paulick Report)

I wonder just how long our wonderful sport can survive with our racehorses continuing to break down, causing them to be euthanized?

The debate about the connection of these breakdowns on the tracks and the use of powerful drugs such as Bute and Lasix is irrelevant. Perception is reality, and it is quite clear what the perception of our sport will be if we don’t clean up our act immediately.

If you don’t believe me, just ask the once-beloved and iconic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the popular SeaWorld or, better yet, Greyhound racing. The perception was that animals were being mistreated … and the rest is history.

Jane Smiley: “The deaths at Santa Anita remind me why I don’t miss horse racing” (LA Times)

I do not know whether racing can be saved, or whether it should be saved. I’m no longer a fan, and my trainer friend in France is not hopeful. American racing has made small attempts at reforming drug rules, footing, training rules, breeding, but evidently those reforms aren’t good enough. Without the betting, there is no money in it, and the betting pushes the authorities to overlook mistreatment.

Lenny Shulman: “Struggles at Santa Anita” (Bloodhorse)

When national media focus their spotlight upon an industry mainly during adversity and disaster, and when that industry provides ammunition to those working to shut it down, the precarious position in which racing finds itself becomes fearfully evident. And that position is greatly exacerbated because this industry insists on having no central spokesperson to respond to a difficult situation by saliently getting its point of view out to the arena of public opinion.

Call it a Perfect Storm.

The deaths of 21 horses must be accounted for. Necropsies might provide some of the answers; we, as an industry, must search for others.

Carleigh Fedorka: “Public Relations” (A Yankee In Paris)

Losing 21 horses in 60 days is devastating – I think we can all agree with that. No one, and I repeat, no one, is taking this lightly. Everyone within this industry is sad. We are scared. We are wary.

But moreso, we should be mad.

We should be mad at ourselves. For letting this bad publicity go unchecked. For reading stories on The BloodHorse and Thoroughbred Daily News and assuming that the average person reads the same. For assuming that this insider knowledge of the situation is broad, and not acknowledging that it is not.

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