In an unprecedented move, the California Horse Racing Board asked Santa Anita to cancel the remainder of its season — now six days — in the wake of more horse deaths over the last few weeks, but the track’s management said no.
Two more horse deaths over the weekend raised the total to 29 since Dec. 26, when the track opened for this season. It closes June 23, leaving little time for further action by the board.
The CHRB is a regulatory agency and does not have the power to suspend a race meet or remove race dates without approval of the track, unless it goes through the process of scheduling a meeting with a 10-day notification period and publishing an agenda, among other procedural hurdles.
Closing now “would provide the industry more time to fully implement announced safety initiatives and perhaps additional ones,” the CHRB said in a statement released after questions from The Times.
The Stronach Group, along with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers, released a statement Sunday after racing ended that said in part: “After extensive consultation among all partners, Santa Anita Park will stay open through the end of the meet to see these reforms through.”
The release went on to cite improvements in the number of catastrophic injuries since earlier in the meeting and that “our improvements and changes have been effective.”
This latest action came after Formal Dude, a 4-year-old gelding, was euthanized after sustaining an injury during a mile dirt race Saturday. The presumptive diagnosis is a pelvis injury, according to Dr. Rick Arthur, the chief veterinarian for the CHRB.
Pelvis injuries “can be challenging to diagnose, mostly because the signs can be confused with muscle conditions or other lameness,” Arthur said. “With few exceptions, fatal pelvic fractures have pre-existing stress fractures at necropsy.”
“The pathologists will attempt to determine the specific cause at necropsy,” Arthur said.
When the fatalities at Santa Anita first started, most of the injuries were in the area of front legs, the traditional location for breakdowns. However, there have been six deaths since May 17, and four have been related to either the shoulder or pelvis.
The uptick in deaths, after there were none for a six-week period, led to the CHRB request from chairman Chuck Winner, vice chairman Madeline Auerbach and executive director Rick Baedeker.
The CHRB did suggest Santa Anita stay open for training. There is no other option for the track’s horse population, which has dipped below 2,000.
Training at Del Mar can’t start until July 11 because the site is owned by the state and has other events going on before it is turned over to the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
In the future, the CHRB might have more power to take action. There is a bill (SB 469) in the state legislature that would grant the CHRB the power to stop or move meets with virtually no public notice or waiting periods. It has been endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
After the 22nd death, Santa Anita closed March 5 for testing and evaluation. It reopened March 29. On March 31, Arms Runner broke down while on the dirt crossing of the downhill turf course. That course has since been closed for sprint racing.
There wasn’t another death until May 17, when Commander Coil injured a shoulder and was euthanized. He was followed by Spectacular Music (pelvis), Kochees (racing breakdown), Derby River (shoulder), Formal Dude (pelvis) and Truffalino (sudden death).
Also at stake is Santa Anita’s ability to host the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 1-2. The track had been awarded the prestigious two-day event, the world championships of racing, for a record 10th time, but with the safety of the track in question, it could lead to the event moving to Churchill Downs.
The Breeders’ Cup committee meets June 27 and might discuss the issue.