In the wake of the death Thursday of the 22nd horse at Santa Anita Park since the racing season began on Dec. 26, the company that owns the Arcadia track announced what it called a “complete transformation of our racetracks in California” that includes a ban on medication for horses on the days they are in a race.
“We have all been devastated by the last few weeks,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park. “It has made us all aware of the changes that have to be made. California’s ripe for a change. Today we are announcing a complete transformation of our racetracks in California … Any change is hard, but the love of the horse supersedes all else. We know first-hand that owners, trainers and jockeys love and care deeply for their horses. We, too, love the horses and we’re making these changes to put the health and welfare of the horse and rider first.”
Ritvo — who spoke for about a minute — said it was “important that everyone review these comprehensive changes” and declined to answer questions from reporters.
The announcement came hours after the death of the 22nd horse at the track in less than three months. The Daily Racing Form reported that Princess Lili B, a 3-year-old filly, broke both of her front legs during a morning workout on Santa Anita’s main track, where racing has been suspended indefinitely since it was closed March 5 for further testing.
Officials have been targeting March 22 as the date to resume racing, and no plans to postpone that date were announced.
“We’re just perplexed by what has happened, and devastated,” Ritvo told Fox 11 earlier Thursday.
“The track — we have complete confidence in the track, with the greatest track crew in America, and it’s just a devastating time for all of us,” Ritvo said.
Santa Anita Park has come under fire from animal rights activists, with demonstrators from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protesting outside Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s downtown Los Angeles office Thursday to urge a criminal investigation into the trainers whose horses have died since the start of the meet.
Following the announcement by Santa Anita, PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo lauded Santa Anita for “standing up to all the trainers, veterinarians, and owners who have used any means — from the whip to the hypodermic syringe — to force injured or unfit horses to run.”
“This is a watershed moment for racing, and PETA urges every track to recognize that the future is now and to follow suit,” Guillermo said in a statement. “This ground-breaking plan, which PETA has pushed for, will not bring back the 22 horses who have died recently, but it will prevent the deaths of many more and will set a new standard for racing that means less suffering for thoroughbreds at this track. Racing must go the way of the animal circus, but this will eliminate some of the misery on its way out.”
In an open letter “about the future of thoroughbred racing in California,” Belinda Stronach wrote, “What has happened at Santa Anita over the last few weeks is beyond heartbreaking. It is unacceptable to the public and, as people who deeply love horses, to everyone at The Stronach Group and Santa Anita. The sport of horse racing is the last great sporting legacy platform to be modernized. If we expect our sport to grow for future generations, we must raise our standards.”
Stronach, the chairman and president of the Stronach Group, wrote in the 2 1/2-page letter that it was a “watershed moment” and that the mandate “encompasses a complete revision of the current medication policy to improve the safety of our equine and human athletes and to raise the integrity of our sport.”
The “zero tolerance” policy for race-day medication will be in place at Santa Anita Park, along with Golden Gate Fields, another racetrack owned by The Stronach Group in Berkeley, and will be the first thoroughbred racetracks in North America to follow the strict International Federation of Horseracing Authorities standards, according to Stronach.
The use of riding crops to prod horses to run faster has also been banned.
“A cushion crop should only be used as a corrective safety measure,” the letter stated. “While we firmly believe our jockeys have not purposely been mistreating their mounts, it is time to make this change.”
The California Horse Racing Board, the state agency that governs the sport, had this to say Thursday:
“Like so many others, the California Horse Racing Board is greatly disturbed by this latest fatality and is committing its resources to helping identify the cause or causes of these fatalities and taking remedial action as necessary,” Mike Marten, the spokesman for the state racing authority, said in a statement provided to City News Service. “This matter is on the agenda for the Board’s March 21 public meeting. …
“The CHRB conducts an investigation for any horse that dies within a CHRB-licensed facility, as will be the case with the fatality this morning. The CHRB is a law enforcement agency with sworn police officers. The CHRB’s Chief of Enforcement is leading these investigations.
“These investigations include necropsies and can take several months. The results are thoroughly reviewed and can involve interviews with the trainer and attending veterinarian. The Official Veterinarian and Safety Steward have been heavily involved in this process from the beginning. Chairman Winner, Vice Chair Madeline Auerbach, and senior CHRB staff also have been fully engaged since the onset.
“The CHRB grants a racing association a license to conduct a race meet, so the decision to train or race during that meet rests with the racing association (in this case Santa Anita) unless the Board follows statutorily required procedures for placing any additional conditions on a license. The Board has been in contact with Santa Anita on an ongoing basis as they have tried to deal with this situation. The Board is now examining other options to prevent additional fatalities.
“The Board will have no further comment at this time.”
Officials with Breeders’ Cup Limited also welcomed the changes at Santa Anita.
“Like all of racing we are profoundly saddened by the loss of a life at any racetrack and we are heartbroken for those whose livelihoods are dedicated to the care of our horses,” the group said in a statement Thursday. “As an organization, the Breeders’ Cup stands for the highest levels of safety and integrity. We support the effort by The Stronach Group to propose important changes and we commit to working with the racing industry in California and elsewhere to achieve meaningful reform on a national basis.
“We recognize that for real change to result from this difficult situation we must engage those stakeholders quickly and dedicate time and other resources. We must, as an industry, press forward on implementing existing best practices and rapidly proceed with the consideration of further reforms such as those proposed by The Stronach Group in California. It is vital that we all do so.”
Santa Anita recently announced a set of new protocols, including the creation of an equine-welfare director to be filled by an accredited veterinarian, a requirement that trainers who want to put a horse through timed, high-speed training exercises will be required to ask for permission 24 hours in advance to help track veterinarians identify “at-risk” horses by evaluating past performance, workout data and physical inspections, along with hiring additional veterinarians “to observe all horses entering and exiting the tracks each morning during training hours.”
Between December and February of the previous year, 10 horses died at Santa Anita, compared with eight in 2016-17 and 14 in 2015-16.
The track averaged about 50 deaths per year from 2008-18, according to data from the California Horse Racing Board.
The unusually large amount of rain that has fallen over the Southland this winter has been mentioned as a possible factor in explaining the surge in deaths.
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