Santa Anita has found itself on the good side of the spotlight on Tuesday when a leading animal rights group called on the country to adopt safety reforms currently being implemented in California.
It comes two days after Santa Anita had its third horse death in nine days, which follows almost six weeks of racing and training without a fatality.
Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, called for the suspension of racing nationwide until reforms similar to those in place at Santa Anita and soon other California tracks are put in place. Guillermo singled out New York as having 15 horses die this year either racing or training.
She said there have been 148 fatalities in New York over the past two years, which includes the three main New York Racing Assn. tracks plus smaller Finger Lakes. The calculation also includes fatalities that were non-exercise induced, but PETA concluded were caused by something that happened on the track.
An argument can be made that New York has had a run of safe racing. So far this year, there has been one racing death at Aqueduct and two at Belmont, which is in stark contrast to 15 racing fatalities at Santa Anita.
The remaining New York fatalities were in training, especially at Belmont (nine deaths), which is a heavily used year-around training facility. Last year, there were 18 racing deaths at the three main New York tracks out of 14,987 starts.
“NYRA has implemented extensive reforms and made significant investments in recent years to modernize track surface analysis, upgrade facilities and provide our veterinary team with the independent authority and resources required to properly monitor thoroughbred health and welfare,” said Pat McKenna, NYRA director of communications. “These efforts have yielded meaningful results and led to demonstrably safer racing operations at Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park and Saratoga Racecourse.”
PETA’s announcement is meant to coincide with the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, which will be held a week from Saturday.
“Neither New York nor any other state has enacted the rules that the Stronach Group and the California Horse Racing Board have out in place and continue to strengthen,” Guillermo said. “There is no excuse for this inaction.”
It’s a very unusual alliance to have a racing company and an animal rights group on seemingly the same side. When Belinda Stronach, chief executive and president of the Stronach Group, announced a series of safety reforms, PETA was part of the announcement.
The reforms include cutting in half the amount of race-day Lasix a horse can have and stricter protocols on other medications, along with tougher vetting of when a horse should be allowed to run. There is also a proposal to eliminate the use of the riding crop, or whip, except when safety is involved. It’s expected that proposal will be modified.
“I agree with [the stance] that we are continuing to do everything we can to promote safety,” Chuck Winner, California Horse Racing Board chairman, said on Tuesday. “We’re working along with the Stronach Group and other industry stakeholders to make racing as safe as it can possibly be.”
Despite the support from PETA and a call for national reform, the Stronach Group has been unable to enact its own proposals at its tracks in Florida and Maryland. Negotiations are ongoing with the various jurisdictions.
“We would love to see uniformity,” Stronach said in an interview during Preakness Stakes weekend. “I would like to see uniformity across America. But we have to lead and start somewhere and we’ve taken a very principled stand. We’re going to work through it.”
The California Horse Racing Board is investigating the deaths of the latest fatalities, as it does with every horse death in California.
“Every situation is different and we’re evaluating each and every one to see if it could be avoided and if it could, we would take action,” Winner said. “We investigate all of them.”
Winner said he couldn’t comment on the status of any of the investigations.
Santa Anita and the California Horse Racing Board are checking to see if protocols were followed in the death of Kochees, a 9-year-old gelding, who was euthanized on Sunday after he could not be saved by surgery.
The horse was conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Three of the 26 racing and training fatalities since Dec. 26 were trained by Hollendorfer.
“In my mind there is absolutely no doubt that we’ve done every single thing properly with Kochees and all the rest of our horses, too,” Hollendorfer told the Associated Press.
The Stronach Group, Churchill Downs Inc., the NYRA and many independent tracks such as Del Mar, Los Alamitos and Keeneland formed a coalition to institute more safety measures. Starting next year, 2-year-olds will not be allowed to race with Lasix and in 2021 race-day Lasix will not be allowed in stakes races, including the Triple Crown.