Let’s recap the horror of the winter racing season at Santa Anita Park: Horses first began to fall — and die — on the track at the end of December, so officials called in a series of experts who examined the surface and declared it fine. Then more horses died, and the park closed so that experts could return and take another look at the track. They again deemed it fine.
But the deaths continued. When the 21st horse died in early March, the park suspended both training and racing. But training resumed about a week later — and the 22nd horse died. The park closed yet again and instituted new drug protocols for horses, including a ban on the commonly used race day drug Lasix, and restrictions on anti-inflammatory medications. Since the new rule was to be phased in, horses were still allowed Lasix at half the usual dosage. After nearly a month, racing resumed late last week. On Sunday, a 5-year-old gelding named Arms Runner fell on the dirt crossover stretch of a grass track, broke his right front leg and was euthanized. He was the 23rd horse to die while racing or training at the park in a span of three months.
By contrast, there were 37 deaths there during seven months of racing in 2017-18.
Given that unexplained increase, how is it possible that racing is still going on at Santa Anita? It seems obvious that until Santa Anita officials and all the relevant experts have the information they need to figure out the cause of the deaths, horses should not be racing there.
The death toll has come as a sobering wake-up call for people who were unaware how dangerous a sport this is for horses.
Was it the rain that poured down on the track? Medication that dulled symptoms of underlying health problems? The Jockey Club, the 125-year old organization that oversees the breeding registry of thoroughbreds in the U.S. and Canada, issued a scathing report in late March decrying the widespread use of Lasix — the controversial and powerful diuretic — on race days, as well as the use of injury-masking painkillers just before race days. The report warned that spikes in deaths will continue across the country until significant reforms are put in place to lessen the chances of horses running on injuries.
Santa Anita is under enormous scrutiny. The L.A. District Attorney’s office has launched an investigation. The Humane Society of the U.S., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have called for the park to suspend racing until it understands what is happening. Rep. Judy Chu, who represents Arcadia, where the park is located, has called for a congressional hearing and investigation.
Santa Anita officials, to their credit, have instituted the new medication protocols and other reforms, and when they’re fully in place, they will be some of the strictest in the country. Eventually, all horses at the park will run without Lasix on race days. And anti-inflammatory drugs, which were allowed up to 24 hours before race day will only be allowed 48 hours or more before race day.
Park officials believe that they have controlled for all the factors they can. But how can they know that if they don’t yet have full information on the deaths? For instance, they have not yet seen the “necropsies” — animal autopsies — that will presumably deliver more details.
Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, is a big critic of treating horses with Lasix on race day. But he has seen the necropsies and believes medication will not be a major factor in most of the deaths. Now park officials need to examine the results and consider them along with all the other issues that might have contributed to the deaths.
Santa Anita is approaching its most lucrative weekend, featuring the Santa Anita Derby that will include contenders for the upcoming Kentucky Derby. That shouldn’t matter. If the park truly cares about the welfare of horses, as it says it does, then it needs to suspend racing.
Overseas, horses race are not allowed Lasix on race days. And the most common anti-inflammatory drug given to horses — phenylbutazone — may not be administered less than six days before a race in other countries, according to the Jockey Club report. Here in the U.S., some tracks allow that drug to be given to a horse the day before a race. According to the executive director of the Jockey Club, the fatality rate for horses in the U.S. is to 2 ½ to five times what it is in overseas in Europe, Australia and Hong Kong race tracks.
The Horseracing Integrity Act, which is pending in Congress, would help police this sport and set better rules. It would create a private, independent horse-racing authority to set nationwide rules and limits on medications and to increase drug testing on non-competition days.
The spike in fatalities at Santa Anita needs to be addressed quickly. But the death toll has also come as a sobering wake-up call for people who were unaware how dangerous a sport this is for horses. According to the Jockey Club’s database of thoroughbred racing-related fatalities, about 493 horses died from racing in 2018. That doesn’t count training-related deaths.
That number is down substantially from 2009, when at least 790 horses died racing. (In part that’s because there are fewer races today). And the horses that died this year make up a very small fraction of the 49,000 horses that raced last year.
Still, can we really justify hundreds of horse deaths each year to satisfy our need for entertainment? If owners can’t show they are very serious about bringing the number down still farther, the public will lose its tolerance for this collateral damage.