Commentary: Santa Anita needs to close the track until they learn what’s killing these horses
Twenty-two horses have died at Santa Anita Park since Dec. 26. Experts are trying to figure out why.
Do not be surprised if, say five years from now, a book comes out that documents the demise of horse racing in the United States. The title will be “Princess Lili B.”
That is the name of the most recent victim of Santa Anita, the Great Race Place that no longer is. A maiden filly, she is no longer a prisoner in an unsafe environment. She was training Thursday morning and broke down. Fractured both front ankles. And yes, she was euthanized, the fancy word they use in racing when they have to put a horse to death.
Princess Lili B was No. 22. That’s not a post-position number. That is a numerical listing of the funeral processions Santa Anita thoroughbred racing has held since it opened for business on Dec. 26. They are running out of pallbearers.
Sadly, only the extreme of this has slapped the public across the face. In some walks of life, it takes a village. In horse racing, it apparently takes an epidemic. Last year, in a roughly similar period of racing at the Arcadia track, 10 horses died, bringing the usual reaction and litany of rationalization:
“It’s a dangerous sport … the track got wet … these are 1,000-pound animals running on skinny little legs; what do you expect …?”
Horse racing’s reaction is like politicians after a school shooting: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims …”
Blah, blah, blah ...
Santa Anita is owned by the Stronach Group, a big corporate entity that owns several other tracks around the country and admires the symbol of success in line with other big corporate entities. The dollar bill, of course.
Once interviewed the head of the empire, Frank Stronach, before the middle leg of the Triple Crown at his withering, disintegrating Pimlico track. Asked when he would be putting some much-needed money into fixing up the old girl. He replied that there would not be “one coat of paint” going onto the creaking and cracking walls until the state of Maryland legalized casino gambling that would allow him to open a casino at one of his tracks — either Pimlico or nearby Laurel Park — and supplement his horse racing. A few years later, Maryland legalized casino gambling, offering spots for three casinos. Stronach passed. Pimlico still creaks and leaks.
Thursday’s call to action — or stall for time and play for public relations favor — came from Stronach’s daughter, Belinda, the company’s chairman and president. Her missive circulated to the media began, “What has happened … is beyond heartbreaking.” A good guess is that her thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the horses.
Belinda Stronach’s announcement was a call to action. Yup, 22 dead horses into it, the Stronach Company has now banned use of race-day drugs (by those evil trainers and veterinarians) and the use of whips (by those evil jockeys who hit the horses when they are getting them to run faster and therefore make them break their legs and need to be killed — er, pardon, euthanized).
It also seemed, by implication, that some owners got thrown under the bus in the PR release. Belinda Stronach even used PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), with whom horsemen have a long and prickly relationship over dozens of issues. The release quoted PETA as saying, “Thanks to Santa Anita for standing up to all those who have used any means to force injured or unfit horses to run.”
So, this is where we are. The death of Princess Lili B brought a news release, with promises of action. A news release …
In the Belinda Stronach news release, there was no mention of how long the track will be closed. Right now, there will be training Friday morning. The tentative re-opening is March 22.
That’s not good enough. Way too soon. Close it down for a long, real look.
Put out a news release that really says something, that isn’t just more buying of time and holding of breath in the hope that those betting windows can open soon and get the cash flowing again. Something like: This place will not put another horse on the track until we can scientifically figure out, and communicate to the public in a totally transparent way, what the hell happened here.
While this is going on, Stronach should use some of that corporate cash to keep paying his Santa Anita staff and expect them to be plugged into every and all scientific experiment, either on the dirt or on the drugs. That leaves the trainers, vets, owners and jockeys — all independent contractors — to take their wares elsewhere for a while, maybe forever, to places where horses actually return to their barns.
One last thing. The Breeders’ Cup is scheduled for Santa Anita in November. Part of the Breeders’ Cup charm, in addition to a Brinks Truck backing up after each race, is that European horses come and compete and add nicely to the show. In Europe, horses run less, run most often on grass surfaces and seldom break down. You think those racing teams reading about Princess Lili B are not pondering a change of plans?
Shut it down for the rest of the meeting. Make it dark until June 23. Tell the public that right now. It needs to know the track is serious and not just stalling until the story disappears from the front page and the evening news. Encourage the Breeders’ Cup people to put somebody on hold. Churchill Downs? Del Mar?
Done correctly and genuinely, the Stronachs can go from villains to heroes. The sport can return to viable, rather than untenable.
And pray there is an answer, a real answer. Because no answer will do to the customers what these deaths have already started to do. Keep them at home.
Bill Dwyre was the sports editor of the Los Angeles Times and covered horse racing for nine years before retiring in 2015, when he received the national Breeders’ Cup Writing Award.
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