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Recent spike in horse deaths at Santa Anita stirs concern

Recent spike in horse deaths at Santa Anita stirs concern
Racehorses run on a sloppy track at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In a tragic 16-hour period, Santa Anita had three horses die while racing or training, including Battle of Midway, a star-crossed Breeders’ Cup winner who was pulled from the breeding shed to return to the track.

The number of fatalities at Santa Anita has more than doubled from an equivalent time last year. According to track stewards’ minutes, which have only been released through Feb. 10, there have been 16 fatalities this racing season — which began Dec. 26 — compared to seven last year, the safest in 25 years. Those numbers do include non-exercise related deaths as they do for the previous year, although the majority occur on track.

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Santa Anita plans to bring in Mick Peterson, a University of Kentucky track safety expert, to consult on the recent number of fatalities. The California Horse Racing Board is planning an emergency call with Santa Anita management on Sunday to address this issue.

“One death is too many for sure,” said Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, among other tracks. “We’re going to look at all the circumstances. Weather is a big factor. We’re doing nothing different to the track. … It doesn’t matter if it’s Battle of Midway or a first-time starter, this is just such an unfortunate circumstance.”

The 16 deaths reported this season do not include the three recent losses. On Friday, Hot American broke down leaving the backstretch in a 1 1/8-mile turf race. On Saturday morning, Battle of Midway suffered a fracture of his hind pastern during a timed workout. Just Forget It, an unraced 4-year-old gelding, was also vanned off and euthanized after a training breakdown. The incidents occurred at different places on the track.

None of the jockeys suffered any serious injuries.

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine director at both the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the California Horse Racing Board, says it is way too early to draw any conclusions.

“One horse [dying] is too a large number,” Arthur said, echoing Ritvo. “But to do an analysis of the numbers so far, it’s just not there. … There are certainly more than the previous year. And they are doing a lot of turf races. But we haven’t compared it by starts on each surface. So, you can’t make too many conclusions.”

Arthur also points to the bad, wet weather as something that is, if nothing else, a complication to this racing season.

There are also issues such as the amount of sand you have to add to a California track because of the climate that can make it a harder surface.

According to the annual report of the California Horse Racing Board, racing fatalities have decreased 60% over the last 13 years, saying “much of that decrease in the last year alone.”

In the last fiscal year (July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018), Santa Anita had 44 horse fatalities over what is about seven months of racing. There were 10 during dirt racing and 10 on turf racing, 17 during dirt training and seven others, totaling 44. Last year, Santa Anita did not have its 16th fatality until the week that ended on March 15.

The “other” category is mostly non-exercise induced, including illness or something unforeseen such as a horse hitting their head in a stall accident.

“Last year was an exceptionally safe year,” Arthur said. “[Statistically], it was going to be a tough year to beat. This year is not doing as well.”

Battle of Midway, a 6-year-old male, finished third in the Kentucky Derby and ended the year with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar. He was retired to stud but had trouble getting mares in foal and was returned to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer after the breeding season to resume his racing career. He had won three of his last four races including an upset of McKinzie in the San Pasqual on Feb. 2. Saturday was just a scheduled workout that is standard for horses in training.

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Arthur said he, his team and the CHRB will be looking for commonalties in the deaths.

“We’ll study the necropsies and try and sort these things out,” Arthur said. “We’ll be looking at where the horses are in training, all sorts of things. But, with only two months, you can’t make a conclusion on what is still a relatively small number. We will look at all commonalities and issues that are fixable.”

Saturday’s 10-race card was concluded with no serious injuries or fatalities.

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