State hearing on equine deaths lacks tough questioning

FILE - In this Thursday, March 28, 2019, file photo, a few horses and riders are seen on the track w
Santa Anita was named last year to be this year’s host of the Breeders’ Cup. However, the rise in fatalities has made it a discussion point.
(Amanda Lee Myers / Associated Press)

The crisis that prompted the California legislature to hold a hearing on the rise in equine deaths Wednesday turned into more of a rushed recitation on how the state has some of the toughest standards in the country and has a plan to lead the nation in reform.

Starting just over an hour late in the state Capitol because of an extended session in the assembly, a scant group of legislators that started at eight, grew momentarily to 12, and then shrunk to four by the end of the almost two-hour meeting, lacked any fireworks or tough questioning that can define these sessions

There were 17 people on six different panel groups that read statements and answered questions. The most pointed questioning was directed at Belinda Stronach, chairman and chief executive officer of the Stronach Group, when co-chair and Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) brought up the perception issue of the sport.

Stronach instituted a series of reforms at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields that included the reduction of race-day Lasix, a medicine given to reduce bleeding from the lungs in horses, and elimination of the use of the riding crop or whip. Gray pointed out that these reforms seem to have little to do with the rash of 25 deaths since Dec. 26.


“At the end of the day, if people don’t want to come to racing because horses are whipped or have to have medication to compete then we don’t have a product,” Stronach said. “And we need to be doing the best thing now to put the horses before the sport.”

Stronach also said it’s her hope to make the sport Lasix free by 2024 or 2025.

Many of the speakers stressed the point that California is heavily regulated when it comes to racing and a combination of existing rules and reform measures has made this the safest state in racing.

“I can honestly tell you that right now after 38 years of experience that I feel more safe riding at Santa Anita, or Del Mar for that matter, that I’ve ever felt at any track in my life,” said Mike Smith, a hall of fame jockey.


Santa Anita was in the midst of an unprecedented run of safety, lasting almost six weeks without a breakdown in either racing or training, when two horses died in a four-day span. One fatality was in training and one in racing, and both were nontypical injuries in the shoulder and pelvis.

Many injuries occur in the area of the fetlock, or ankle, and Santa Anita just made a major investment in a machine that can more easily detect injuries to that area without having to put a horse under anesthesia.

The tone of the questioning was that Santa Anita is moving in the right direction and has a handle on the situation.

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Rick Baedeker, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, said the joint investigation of the CHRB and L.A. County District Attorney’s office is about two-thirds through the interviewing process. He also said, as he has in the past, that the actual cause of the breakdowns may never be known.

Santa Anita was named last year to be this year’s host of the Breeders’ Cup. However, the rise in fatalities has made it a discussion point. Craig Fravel, president and chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup, lauded Santa Anita for its effort but quietly left the door open to a change when he said the track was “scheduled” to host the November event.

State Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), the co-chair, tried to hurry along the proceedings because of the late start, often asking the speakers to keep their prepared remarks short and at one point telling Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn., not to read his prepared slides. There were no questions for the last panel of speakers on the economic impact of racing in the state. There were two public comment speakers, both animal rights advocates.

The current Santa Anita meet concludes June 23.


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