Special Report: Horse deaths at Santa Anita may have implications for entire racing industry

An outrider waits by the track during a race at Santa Anita Park, where 30 horses have died since the start of the current meeting on Dec. 26.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

There was a spike in horse fatalities during races at the track, more than 20 dead in about three and a half months.

Abnormal weather was one possible cause.

There was scrutiny on whether horsemen were pressured to race more horses, because fuller fields help maximize profits.

It was determined that a lack of sufficient protocols and oversight by the racing office had possibly allowed unfit horses to run.


For people who have followed the spate of fatal injuries to horses during Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet — a 30th death occurred Saturday morning — it’s a familiar script. Only these details come from Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, where 21 horses died between Nov. 30, 2011, and March 18, 2012.

In New York, the fatalities initiated the formation of a state task force that spent five months examining every aspect of the sport’s culture. The horsemen involved all were granted anonymity in pursuit of the truth.

The result was a 100-page document, with an additional 100 pages of exhibits, suggesting reforms that became a roadmap to safer racing. Since then, the fatality rate at New York Racing Assn. tracks has dropped from 2.19 to 1.20 per 1,000 starts.

Among the changes, New York hired a state equine medical director, created a protocol for handling necropsies — for animals, the equivalent of an autopsy — and set rules for the use of certain medications. California was, at the time, ahead of the game with some safety measures. But other states were slow to similarly respond.

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“One of the things that came out of the reforms was that a lot of work can be done to improve safety,” said Alan Foreman, a member of the New York task force. “[The report] was underappreciated in the industry. In hindsight, the industry didn’t embrace it.”

In 2018, the national average was 1.68 deaths per 1,000 racing starts. Santa Anita averaged 2.04. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, was at 2.73.

With similar safety measures in place, it is difficult to explain the difference in death rates between New York and Santa Anita, the jewel of California tracks.

Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, has a couple of theories. “One of our challenges is we have bone dry weather conditions, although this year we had the opposite,” he said. “Some humidity makes it easier to maintain a track. And California has a go, go, go way of racing compared to other jurisdictions. Our trainers train hard and we have more [workouts] per start than any other state.”

Horse racing is not a sport that is typically quick to embrace change. Even in the midst of crisis, the three biggest race track operators — the Stronach Group, which runs Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif., and Pimlico and Laurel in Maryland; Churchill Downs Inc.; and the New York Racing Assn. — haven’t agreed on many issues, including whether there should be a national organization to oversee medication rules.

“This is a funny sport with a very short memory,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, chief equine veterinarian in Kentucky and a member of the New York task force. “It has a short-range view looking forward. The next overnight [entries] is the future.”

New York’s task force was comprised of Scollay; Foreman, an equine and racing attorney who also was chief executive of the Thoroughbred Horseman’s Assn.; Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey; and Scott Palmer, an equine surgeon who is now the chief veterinarian in New York.

“The report was groundbreaking,” Bailey said. “These were brilliant people with insight into the medical issues and the legal issues. I was there to offer a different perspective. Nothing was left out. If I had known half of what I [learned] it would have been hard for me to get on the back of a horse.”

The group determined that more than half the fatalities possibly could have been prevented.

“We concluded that 11 might have been saved with better protocols, better rules, better policies,” Foreman said. “… We have to be able to admit that. You have to be able to say that those 11 would break down in the future. History shows we were on the right track.”

Horse racing is governed by more than 30 state agencies. And while there are similarities between the rules in California and New York, elsewhere the regulations can vary dramatically. For example, in California jockeys are prohibited from whipping a horse more than three times without giving it a chance to respond. In New York, it’s 10 times. When American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby in 2015, jockey Victor Espinoza was allowed to hit him 31 times down the stretch. Also, medical records don’t always follow horses from state to state.

Seven years ago, there were some commonalities among the horse deaths in New York. Seventeen were during claiming races, in which the horses are up for sale for a certain price. The other four were in maiden special weights, races for horses that have never won. All occurred on the same dirt surface.

At Santa Anita, the deaths occurred in all types of races and training — nine during training on the main dirt track, one on the dirt training track, 10 during dirt racing and seven during turf racing.

The track’s problems were brought to light after an 18-hour period Feb. 22-23 in which three horses died, including Breeders’ Cup winner Battle of Midway. He was the 18th fatality since the meet opened Dec. 26.

When the count reached 21 on March 5, Santa Anita suspended racing. Limited training was allowed after a few days, and then full workouts, but races didn’t resume until March 28.

The track also experienced an equally unusual run of safe racing and training between April 29 and May 17, when there were more than 7,000 timed workouts and almost 800 race starts without a catastrophic injury.

After two more deaths over the weekend of June 8-9, bringing the total to 29, the California Horse Racing Board asked Santa Anita to close down for the last two weeks of its meeting — six days of racing. However, the CHRB does not have the authority to close a track on short notice and Santa Anita refused. Instead, state regulators issued stringent protocols for the remaining six days of races.

Santa Anita Park workers hold a rally at the track earlier this week.
(Beth Harris / Associated Press)

On Saturday, Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was banned from all Stronach race tracks after American Currency suffered a catastrophic injury while running on the training track. The horse had been scheduled to race June 16 at Santa Anita but was scratched by a track veterinarian and did not run.

In a statement, the Stronach Group said, “Individuals who do not embrace the new rules and safety measures that put horse and rider safety above all else will have no place at any Stronach Group racetrack.” It added that Hollendorfer, whose horses have won nearly $200 million during his career, which dates back to 1979, had not matched “the level of safety and accountability we demand.”

Hollendorfer could not be reached for comment.

Santa Anita’s current meet comes to a close on Sunday, but training is scheduled to continue until July 11 when Del Mar opens for training and racing. Santa Anita reopens on Sept. 27 and runs until Nov. 3. On Nov. 1-2, the Breeders’ Cup, the Super Bowl of horse racing, is on the track’s docket.

In dozens of interviews with race officials, trainers, jockeys and other horsemen in recent months, three reasons were most often cited for Santa Anita’s spate of fatalities: a rainy winter that affected the track’s surfaces; a culture that pressured horsemen to fill race fields; and a business model that is outdated.

Trouble in the forecast

Everyone seems to agree that weather played a factor in this year’s breakdowns at Santa Anita. There was more than 20 inches of rain at the track, and the dirt was continually being sealed and unsealed, a process in which the surface is tightly compressed so that water rolls off the top and doesn’t seep into the ground to create mud.

There has been speculation that the hard surface over which the horses were running created micro-fractures that later manifested into breakdowns.

At the height of its problems, Santa Anita reached out to Mick Peterson, the country’s leading authority on racing surfaces, and Dennis Moore, a respected former superintendent at the Arcadia track.

“At Aqueduct, it can go through the freeze and unfreeze cycle all day long,” Peterson said of the track conditions. “So, it changes all day long.

“There is even a bigger challenge at Santa Anita,” he added. “It can be wet after training and by the fourth race you have to send in the water truck. It’s wind and low humidity.”

Another factor is the cost of running a group to monitor the racing surface, according to Peterson.

“The difference in New York is they not only have a team but a bench,” Peterson said. “They have people behind the people. It allows them to check and double-check that everything is done well.

“Santa Anita has a team but doesn’t have a bench.”

Race, or else

The New York report was critical of how the racing office was constructed: veterinarians reported to the vice president of racing, who was also Aqueduct track’s racing secretary.

“The organizational structure with the Veterinary Department is accountable to the Racing Department establishes a potentially critical conflict of interest,” the report said. “The Racing Office attempts to generate full fields, as wagering handle is directly related to field size. Racetrack management has a vested interest in maximizing field size.”

In its recommendations, the task force found the situation “troubling” that a horse might be determined to be unsound by an NYRA veterinarian, but be allowed to race following intervention by the track’s racing office.

“There was pressure from the racing office for trainers to run,” Bailey said. “I heard it from multiple people.”

A similar refrain surfaced at the beginning of the year at Santa Anita, where P.J. Campo, Aqueduct’s racing secretary at the time of its problems, had taken over as vice president of racing.

At a meeting of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, several trainers complained that they were being pressured to run their horses or lose stall space, according to people who were at the meeting but did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation.

The trainers were encouraged to put the well-being of their horses first, but not all felt they had that option — especially if they hailed from small barns.

“I wasn’t [threatened] but I know a lot of people who were,” said Doug O’Neill, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner who is the leading trainer of Santa Anita’s meeting. “I would be lying if I didn’t say I knew those things were going on.”

Steve Specht, who primarily trains at Golden Gate and occasionally brings horses to Santa Anita, also acknowledged the issue.

“If you want to scratch a horse, they threaten to take your stalls,” Specht told The Times earlier this year. “The management at Santa Anita has caused their own problems, along with Mother Nature.”

Campo, who no longer works for Santa Anita, did not respond to a request for comment. Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of the company that owns the track, declined to say why Campo was no longer employed there.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group and the person running Santa Anita, recently acknowledged to the horse-racing news website Paulick Report that it was “fair to say we are looking for bigger fields and trying to figure out how to get more people to bet on our product.

“People shouldn’t be threatened, and I can tell you I didn’t threaten anybody,” he added. “I ask people to run and participate.”

Said Belinda Stronach: “We have a management team that is committed to doing things right, putting horse welfare and riding first and everybody must be on that same page. Everyone is on that same page.”

Betting on the business

When a horse dies at a California race track, the California Horse Racing Board always performs a necropsy to determine the cause. But information from the procedures comes in a trickle. None of the results from the necropsies in Arcadia has been announced.

Until they are known, Stronach acknowledged, “there is a cloud that hangs over Santa Anita.” This much, she said, is known: Typically, about 87% of necropsies have shown a preexisting condition that likely contributed to the breakdown.

The track recently invested $500,000 for a machine that can help diagnose fetlock (ankle) injuries without having to put a horse under anesthesia. However, many preexisting conditions remain difficult to detect.

Santa Anita has taken several steps toward improved safety, including a race-day ban on Lasix, a diuretic used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), or bleeding in the lungs.

Stronach and the California Horse Racing Board also added rigorous protocols geared toward identifying horses that should not be racing or in training. In the final six days of Santa Anita’s meet, a panel of officials disqualified 38 horses that had been entered to race.

The new rules have resulted in smaller fields, which threatens the industry’s long-standing business model in which more horses means more options for bettors, which means a larger mutuel handle, which means more money to spread around.

Bailey, the former jockey, suggested horse racing shouldn’t have to choose between fields of fit horses or a healthy bottom line.

“We need a commissioner,” he said. “Other sports have increased attendance, revenue and the bottom line. And that’s because the entire group has to collectively do what’s good for the group. Racing hasn’t done that.”

Indeed, whether Santa Anita can recover has implications at tracks across the country.

“California is not just them, it’s us,” said Scollay, the equine veterinarian from Kentucky. “We’re at a tipping point. All of us remain one injury away from facing the same existential crisis.”

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