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Opinion

Editorial: Enough horse deaths. Santa Anita should stop racing for the season

Vasilika, Flavien Prat
Horses and jockeys compete at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. on May 27.
(Associated Press)

Enough. Sunday marked the 26th death of a horse as a result of racing or training at Santa Anita Park since the winter racing season started in late December. That’s an extraordinary cluster of deaths in a relatively short period of time, and the park still has no good explanation for why it happened. It’s time for Santa Anita to end its season and stop racing until it has one.

To their credit, the owners of Santa Anita Park have put in place groundbreaking reforms. They have cut in half the allowable dose of the diuretic Lasix, which nearly every horse in this country races on, and plan to phase out its use over time. They have restricted the use of pain medications, which can mask an injury. They have increased the time that a horse must be on site before a race. The park has even sought to forbid jockeys from using their crops to whip horses into running faster, although the California Horse Racing Board must sign off on that. And they did all that in the face of opposition from some trainers and owners.

The park took these steps amid a sickening string of 23 horse deaths in the first few months of its winter season. It then went through more than six weeks of racing and training without a horse fatality, only to see three more deaths in nine days. None of the three allowed for easy explanation — much like the rest of the injuries that led to deaths.

The spotlight on Santa Anita should be widened to all the racetracks in the U.S., where deaths are lamented but tolerated.
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Greater clarity could be forthcoming. The California Horse Racing Board and the L.A. County district attorney’s office are conducting a joint investigation. Necropsies have been also done on the horses that have yet to be made public.

With those inquiries pending, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has called for a moratorium on racing at Santa Anita. Two animal welfare groups that have been working on reforms with the park and with the racing board — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Social Compassion in Legislation — want to go further, calling for a moratorium on racing at all tracks in California. In fact, PETA has called for a nationwide ban on racing until all tracks can implement reforms.

Without a doubt, the spotlight on Santa Anita should be widened to all the racetracks in the U.S., where deaths are lamented but tolerated. Horse racing is a risky sport for horses and jockeys. Last year there were 493 thoroughbred fatalities from racing, according to the Jockey Club. That doesn’t even count deaths as a result of training. In seven months of racing during the second half of 2017 and the first half of 2018 at Santa Anita, there was a total of 37 horse fatalities from training or racing. Yet there was no outcry.

This is a sport that expects horses to die even as it vows to do everything it can to prevent deaths. Those 493 horses that died last year at U.S. tracks was a small percentage of the 49,000 thoroughbreds that ran races. But it’s still a high number of animals dying in a sport that’s not intended to kill them. This isn’t dog fighting.

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At the end of the day, there may be no good explanation for the surge in deaths at Santa Anita. It may simply be a stomach-churning cost of doing business. The question that looms for all racetrack and horse owners is, how much death is the public willing to tolerate as “normal”?

Consider this public statement: “The fact that horses running in America are five times more likely to suffer a catastrophic injury than horses running at international venues is unacceptable and must immediately change.” Think that’s from an animal welfare group? No, it’s from the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park. It’s on the group’s website.

There are only 12 days of racing left at Santa Anita before it closes out the season in late June. The most important and lucrative races of the season have been run. And new tools to measure a thoroughbred’s fitness to race are becoming available. Why risk a 27th death? While this investigation continues, Santa Anita should stop risking horses’ lives and halt the racing season now.

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