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Editorial: Twenty-one horses should not have had to die before Santa Anita Park closed

The Clockers' Corner area, the popular morning hangout for owners, trainers, jockeys and fans to watch workouts and grab breakfast, is empty at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. on March 7.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

As winter horse racing got underway in December at the venerable Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, one horse was injured during a race and had to be euthanized. The week after that, two horses died. Then the next week, another two horses, and the week after that, two horses more. The following week: four horses. Not until the 21st horse broke down and had to be euthanized this past week did the owners of the park close the track indefinitely and suspended all racing and training.

That was obviously the right call. The exasperating thing is that they didn’t shut down racing more than a month ago when the tally of deaths was half what it is now.

There’s no question that California racing is safer and more closely monitored than it’s ever been. Race horse fatalities in the state have gone from 240 in 2007 to 96 in 2018, according to the California Horse Racing Board. In California, racehorses are allowed only anti-inflammatory and therapeutic drugs, not performance-enhancing ones, and the animals are routinely tested on race days. All those rules, however, didn’t stop this horrific situation from unfolding. The 21 deaths at Santa Anita in two months is more than half the total number of racing or training deaths there from July 2017 through June 2018.

The state should consider a rule that would shut down a track when there is a steady accumulation of fatalities over a short period. However, the immediate concern should be keeping horses off of Santa Anita until experts can figure out why so many horses were so gravely injured.

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There is speculation that the injuries were related to the extraordinarily rainy season’s effects on the track. Some observers contend that the method the park uses to seal the track from rain can leave it too firm for horses thundering around it on slender ankles; others disagree.

Santa Anita officials did stop operations for a couple of days in late February and brought in an expert to examine the track. He declared it to be in working condition, and racing resumed. Then two more horses died. Now, Santa Anita has assembled more experts to examine the track further, and the park is evaluating its current safety measures. In a statement, the park’s management vowed that its first priority was the welfare of its horses and that the track would not reopen until it was confirmed to be safe.

That’s kind of what they did in late February, and horses still died. Santa Anita officials should go even further and not reopen until they have not just a thumbs up on the track, but an explanation for these deaths. Hopefully, they will then be able to better safeguard the horses in their care.

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