Horse-racing fans and animal advocates calling for a ban on the sport were expected at Santa Anita Park Saturday for the biggest day of the park’s racing calendar, with the $1 million Santa Anita Derby headlining a 7-race schedule amid an ongoing controversy over a recent spike in horse deaths at the famed track.
The Santa Anita Derby plays a major role in determining the favorites for next month’s Kentucky Derby.
Twenty-three horses have died at Santa Anita since Dec. 26, but two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert told reporters last week that he remains confident about the level of safety at Santa Anita.
“If I thought there was a danger out there, I wouldn’t even (send) my horses out there so I’m feeling good about what’s going on here. But I don’t want to jinx myself,” said Baffert, who noted that he hasn’t had any issues with his horses at the track since the racing season began Dec. 26.
“We’ve been under this dark cloud so hopefully we can move forward,” he said.
Baffert is expected to have two of his top 3-year-old colts — Game Winner and Roadster — in the Santa Anita Derby.
A small group of protesters was already at the track Saturday, hours before the scheduled first post at noon.
Heather Wilson told KTLA5, “We are here because we are speaking up for the horses that don’t want to be here. They’re not given a choice: They are forced to perform, and they are forced to race. There’s nothing normal, there’s nothing natural about horse racing, and we are actually calling for it to end.”
As for future races at Santa Anita, the California Horse Racing Board will hold a special meeting Friday to discuss “possible reallocation of race dates granted to the Los Angeles Turf Club at Santa Anita Park Race Track.”
Such a move, however, would require approval of The Stronach Group (Santa Anita’s parent group) and Tim Ritvo, COO of The Stronach Group, told Daily Racing Forum that Santa Anita fully intends to maintain its schedule of racing through the end of the current meet, June 23.
Santa Anita had been closed to racing for most of March in response to the deaths. Racing resumed March 29, one day after the California Horse Racing Board approved restrictions on certain medications administered to the animals. Two days later, the 23rd horse death occurred when 5-year-old Arms Runner stumbled during the Grade 3 San Simeon Stakes on a hillside turf course that requires horses to briefly cross over the main dirt track.
On Tuesday, Ritvo said the track will suspend races on the hillside turf course to “look at data” in the aftermath of Arms Runner’s death.
Also Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, sent a letter to the CHRB urging it to suspend all racing at Santa Anita “until the cause or causes of these deaths can be fully investigated.”
“I also ask for more information about what the California Horse Racing Board is doing to both investigate this matter and address some of the concerns that these incidents have rightly raised,” Feinstein wrote.
The CHRB recently approved proposals to strictly limit the use of anti-inflammatory medications on horses. It also approved a much-discussed 50 percent reduction in the allowable amount of Lasix, a diuretic that helps prevent horses from hemorrhaging. Santa Anita officials had initially proposed a ban on Lasix, but struck a compromise with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers calling for a 50 percent reduction in allowable dosage.
Santa Anita officials previously announced a series of other measures being implemented to help bolster safety of the horses, including:
— Phasing out the use of whips by jockeys;
— Complete transparency of all veterinary records;
— 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; and
— A substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.
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 last 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.
Saturday’s races also include the $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap.