Responding to a spate of horse deaths, the owners of Santa Anita racetrack announced a series of safety protocols Friday, including the creation of an equine-welfare position, but there was still no immediate word when racing might resume at the famed facility.
The infield training track at Santa Anita reopened for jogging and gentle gallops Friday, but the main track remained closed while experts continued inspecting the racing surface in the wake of 21 horse deaths at the facility since Dec. 26.
The track is in the midst of an unprecedented suspension of racing in response to the deaths, with former track superintendent Dennis Moore and Mick Peterson of Racing Services Testing Lab being brought in to conduct a thorough analysis of the main track.
That inspection officially began Thursday. But Moore and Peterson said their review of the infield training track determined it was ready for light work by horses. None of the horse deaths at the facility involved injuries sustained on the training track.
While the inspection continues, track owner The Stronach Group announced a series of “safety and welfare” protocols that will be in effect when the track reopens.
— Trainers who want to put a horse through timed, high-speed training exercises will be required to ask for permission 24 hours in advance. Officials said the move will help track veterinarians identify “at-risk” horses by evaluating past performance, workout data and physical inspections.
— The track has hired additional veterinarians “to observe all horses entering and exiting the tracks each morning during training hours.”
— The track is also instituting a “House Rule” requiring “complete transparency with regard to veterinary records,” requiring that the records follow the horse through changes in trainers or owners.
— Santa Anita also created the position of Director of Equine Welfare, which will be filled by an accredited veterinarian. The position will oversee “all aspects of equine well-being and will lead a Rapid Response team for injuries.” That team will investigate all factors contributing to the injury and share its findings with the public, track officials said.
“We’re looking forward to returning to normal, but it will be a new normal,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group. “The safety of our equine and human athletes remains our highest priority. We need to work together and continue to create not only our own internal audits, but an open and honest dialogue with all of the stakeholders and evaluate best practices at other racetracks around the world.”
Earlier Friday, Ritvo told Daily Racing Form that more intense, yet still restricted, workouts may begin on the training track Monday. He also said jogging and galloping may be permitted on the main track beginning Monday, possibly expanding to regular workouts by next weekend.
“We’ll start jogging and galloping for a few days and look to start working next weekend, if everything is good,” Ritvo told Daily Racing Form.
Ritvo said that depending on the status of the track inspection and the weather, racing could potentially resume at the track on March 21 or March 22.
The most recent fatality at the track occurred Tuesday morning, when a 4-year-old filly named Lets Light the Way was injured during training and had to be euthanized. The horse’s death was the 21st at the park since Dec. 26. Between December and February the previous year, only 10 horses died at the track, compared with eight in 2016-17 and 14 in 2015-16.
The Tuesday death led to the suspension of all racing and training activity at the park to allow for the more thorough inspection of the racing surface.
Moore was Santa Anita’s track superintendent until he retired in December. He is now track superintendent for Del Mar and Los Alamitos race tracks.
The suspension of racing means some critical races that had been set for this weekend have been scrubbed and will need to be rescheduled.
Santa Anita was set to have five stakes races Saturday, including the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, in which Game Winner — who is undefeated in four starts and was named last year’s champion 2-year-old colt — was set to make his first 2019 start as he prepares for the Kentucky Derby.
Game Winner’s stablemate, Improbable, is undefeated in three starts and was also set for his 2019 debut in the same race for trainer Bob Baffert.
Other stakes races that had been set for Saturday were the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, Grade 2 San Carlos Stakes and the China Doll Stakes.
One stakes race — the Santa Ysabel Stakes — was set for Sunday.
Some animal-advocacy groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have called for a halt to racing at the track and for investigations into the trainers and veterinary records of the horses that have died.
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