Santa Anita Park officials plan to reopen the horse-racing track March 29 after a deal was finalized over the weekend between the track and the Thoroughbred Owners of California to thoroughly revise the facility’s medication policies, in the aftermath of 22 horse deaths at the park since Dec. 26.
Racing has been suspended at the track since March 5, with the two most recent deaths occurring during training.
“This is a complete revision of the current medication policy for Thoroughbred racing. We have worked through the implementation of this groundbreaking model with our stakeholders and the California Horse Racing Board,” said Belinda Stronach, president and chair of The Stronach Group, which owns the famed racetrack, long considered one of the major horse-racing venues in North America. “TSG is committed to the principles of safe horse racing for both equine and human athletes and to making California racing the best in the world. It is my hope the other tracks in California will follow suit. TSG will begin consultation with our stakeholders in other states to put these standards into effect in those jurisdictions, in the best interest of horse racing.”
“We appreciate the willingness of Belinda Stronach of TSG and Jim Cassidy (President of California Thoroughbred Trainers) to negotiate in good faith and reach today’s agreement, said Greg Avioli, president and CEO of TOC. “I am confident we all share the same goal of making California racing safer and doing everything we can to provide additional safety and protection for our horses.”
Santa Anita officials had tried to target March 22 as their reopening date, but state regulations require a 10-day approval process, so the date was pushed back to March 29.
“I very much appreciate the efforts made by The Stronach Group, the TOC, and the CTT in coming to this agreement, to improve and enhance horse and rider safety,” said Chuck Winner, California Horse Racing Board Chairman. “The CHRB will continue to work with the stakeholders as they move forward. I plan to move the previously scheduled March 21st board meeting to March 28th in order for the full board to consider and take action on those items on which CHRB approval is required. March 28th allows for the legally required 10-day public notice.”
The agreement announced late Saturday includes a delay to the banning of Lasix, a diuretic that helps prevent horses from hemorrhaging. A Lasix ban was one of several changes to Santa Anita policies announced Thursday by officials. But the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers — which both support the use of Lasix — balked at the ban.
Now, “following the recommendation of veterinary experts for the best interest of the health of the current horse population, Lasix will still be permitted but at a maximum of 50% of the current levels.”
However, “All horses born in or after 2018 will race at Santa Anita and Golden Gate with no race — day medication, including the diuretic furosemide, commonly known as Lasix. This means all two-year-old horses starting in 2020 and after will be racing medication free.”
The proposed phase-out of Lasix did not please People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“California Thoroughbred owners and trainers are like Lasix addicts, but they’re shooting up the horses instead of themselves,” PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said in a written statement. “No horses outside the U.S. and Canada race with Lasix in their systems, and the owners’ claim that its use must be phased out and not ended outright is transparently bogus.
“PETA is relieved that Santa Anita has finalized its ban on some of the cruelest racing practices — including injection of joints with corticosteroids, painful shockwave therapy and whipping — and has enacted medication rules that will end the use of Phenylbutazone 24 hours before a race and most other drugs in the week before a race, among other changes,” Guillermo said.
“PETA will be watching very closely to see that these changes are implemented, and the public will join us in watching what happens to the horses. If one more horse dies, there will be blood on the owners’ hands and hell to pay,” she said.
The agreement includes the following elements:
— Complete transparency of all veterinary records;
— Strict limitations on the use of any pain or anti-inflammatory medication and treatment, including legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids;
— Trainers must apply for permission to work a horse (a timed, high-speed training exercise) at least 48 hours in advance;
— No therapeutic medications of treatments will be allowed without a qualified veterinary diagnosis from a state licensed veterinarian;
— Significant and strict 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.
The new agreement also address use of the riding crop, sometimes used by jockeys to make horses run faster.
“Santa Anita, Golden Gate and the TOC are also in alliance to change the use of the cushion crop,” The Stronach Group announcement said. “This evolution of a centuries-old practice will only allow the use of the crop as a corrective safety measure. This new directive has already gone into effect during training hours.”
On Friday, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office said it has assigned investigators to work with the California Horse Racing Board to determine if any criminal charges are warranted regarding the spate of deaths, a move that was called for last week by many animal-rights advocates.
Also Friday, the congresswoman whose district includes Santa Anita Park said the track should remain closed “until we know the horses are safe.”
“I am outraged by the deaths at Santa Anita racetrack,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, said in a statement. “Animals deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion, and the use of race-day medication like Lasix must stop. The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to the practice of injecting horses with this drug on race-day and we need answers on the impact of this practice at Santa Anita and throughout the country.
“I am calling on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate and hold a hearing on the treatment of horses at Santa Anita and throughout our country, and to examine legislation like the Horseracing Integrity Act that would improve safety for racehorses,” Chu said. “I will work with my colleagues to ensure that all animals are treated humanely and to get to the bottom of this crisis.”
Responding to Chu’s statement, Santa Anita Park’s director of publicity, Mike Willman, noted that “medication issues were dealt with very comprehensively in the form of an open letter from our chairman and president.”
“At this time, we will not be elaborating on this statement but are hopeful Congresswoman Chu will take these groundbreaking protocols into account as she reviews this entire situation,” Willman wrote in an e-mail.
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 CHRB.
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.
Former track superintendent Dennis Moore and Mick Peterson of Racing Services Testing Lab were brought in to conduct a thorough analysis of the main track, and officials repeatedly said they found no problems.