Santa Anita Park is scheduled to resume horse racing Thursday after a rash of 19 horse deaths in two months prompted the track to close for soil inspection — despite the presence of light rain in the area Thursday morning.
Park officials said late Wednesday that analysts conducting tests of the racing surface had declared it ready for reopening. Mick Peterson of the University of Kentucky, who evaluates the track’s soil on a monthly basis, said the track is “100 percent ready” for racing to resume.
“The ground-penetrating radar verified all of the materials, silt, clay and sand, as well as moisture content, are consistent everywhere on this track,” Peterson said. “This testing ensures all components, the 5-inch cushion, pad and base are consistent and in good order.”
The main track was scheduled to open for training at 5 a.m., the inner track at 4:45 p.m. Racing will begin at 1 p.m. with an eight-race card scheduled for the day.
The abnormal amount of rain that has fallen over Southern California this winter is considered a likely factor to any difficulty with the track, with some 11 1/2 inches of rain falling in February alone. But Mike Marten, public information officer with the California Horse Racing Board, told City News Service that research does not show an increase in fatalities during rainy season.
“While inclement weather poses additional challenges for track maintenance, historical records do not show significant seasonal differences,” Marten said.
On Monday morning, Charmer John, a 3-year-old gelding, was euthanized after he suffered a catastrophic injury to his left front fetlock during training. It was the 19th death of a horse at the busy racetrack since Dec. 26.
During the same December-to-February period a year ago, 10 horses died at Santa Anita, in 2016-17 there were eight and in 2015-16 there were 14, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Santa Anita averaged more than 55 horse deaths per year from 2008-18, according to data from the California Horse Racing Board — a total of 553 deaths in all.
“The number of fatalities at Santa Anita Park this year has been unusual,” said Marten, who noted that the board’s most recent annual report — written before the recent upsurge in Santa Anita deaths — cited progress in reducing racehorse deaths overall in the state.
“Admittedly, even one death of a racehorse is too many, but it is a sign of progress that the industry is finding solutions to a problem that for far too long has perplexed all of us who care deeply about the safety and welfare of horses,” CHRB Chairman Chuck Winner stated in the report. “Equine fatalities in California horse racing have been reduced by nearly 60 percent over the last 13 years, with much of that decrease in the last year alone.”
The report cited several factors for the improvement, including long layoffs and histories to identify at-risk horses.
The recent spike of deaths at Santa Anita was not discussed at the CHRB’s most recent meeting last Thursday, which was held at Santa Anita, Marten told CNS.
“Even though this matter was not discussed at the February 21 public meeting, commissioners and senior staff of the California Horse Racing Board have been working with Santa Anita management over safety concerns. The decision by Santa Anita to close the main track for training on Tuesday and Wednesday is a continuation of that process,” he said.
Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns the racetrack, issued a statement Tuesday saying “we consider the safety and security of the athletes, both equine and human, who race at our facilities to be our top priority.”
“All industry stakeholders, including our company, must be held accountable for the safety and security of the horses and we are committed to doing just that,” he said.
“These are thousand-pound animals going close to 40 miles per hour,” Rick Arthur, medical director of the CHRB, told the Los Angeles Daily News. “So if you don’t have a consistent surface, it can be hazardous.”
“We’ve put a lot of effort into safety and had a very, very good year last year,” Arthur said. “We’ve clearly taken a step back and hopefully it’s a blip on the radar because of the weather. That’s our expectation, but no matter what it is, we’re going to make it better.”
Battle of Midway, the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner of 2017, was euthanized Saturday morning after suffering injuries sustained during a workout, according to Santa Anita’s Ed Golden.
“A five-year-old bay son of Smart Strike trained by Jerry Hollendorfer for Don Alberto Stable or WinStar Farm, LLC, Battle of Midway was being pointed to the $12 million Dubai World Cup on March 30 with a possible start before that in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap on March 9, (trainer Jerry) Hollendorfer had said just prior to the incident,” Golden said Saturday.
Battle of Midway won eight of 16 career starts, and was third in the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
The Times reported that track officials had decided Sunday to close the track on Monday and Tuesday, but reversed course later that day in response to complaints from some trainers, including Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and Jerry Hollendorfer, who objected to the closure and said they thought the track was safe.
Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said: “The decisions to close and reopen the track were made without consultation with our group and without us hearing the arguments, pro and con. With that said, we are committed to offering all the support we can to ensure the safety of our horses, jockeys and workers and stand ready to do whatever we can to help solve this tragic set of circumstances.”
Representatives from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said they canceled a planned protest at Santa Anita race track Tuesday, “after meeting with track representatives who pledged to take definitive steps, including extending the review of medication records to horses who are in training — and not just before races,” said David W. Perle, assistant media manager for PETA.
“Research sponsored by the California Horse Racing Board shows why horses break down and the fault lies with the trainers and veterinarians who drug horses with a cocktail of anti-inflammatories, painkillers, sedatives and more to keep them running when they should be recuperating,” Perle said. “This masks soreness and injury — and injured horses are vulnerable to broken bones. Horses who require medication should not be anywhere near a track. PETA believes that there are innumerable problems with horse racing, but, as a bare minimum, all medications should be banned for at least a week before a horse races or trains, which would effectively stop lame horses from being able to run. PETA will continue to meet with Santa Anita officials in the coming days.”
Another group of demonstrators is scheduled to protest the horse deaths at Santa Anita at 11 a.m. Sunday.
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