As the most tumultuous meeting in Santa Anita’s 85-year history creeps toward its close June 23, the one constant the past few months has been change, be it how trainers do their job, how horses do their work or how many days a week racing is real.
In the midst of an equine fatality crisis, Belinda Stronach, chief executive and president of the Stronach Group, instituted a series of changes with the hope of regaining public confidence that the sport is moving forward and will be safer than it’s ever been for horses and jockeys.
Stronach got the buy in, at times reluctantly, from owners, trainers and jockeys that reforms were necessary and there was also the promise that these measures, to include a reduction in race-day Lasix and use of riding crops only for safety, would be implemented at all the Stronach tracks.
“If it’s good for Santa Anita, why isn’t it good for Gulfstream Park [in South Florida]?” Stronach told The Times in an exclusive interview. “Why isn’t it good for our tracks in Maryland [Pimlico and Laurel]? It really is about horse and rider welfare.”
Except Stronach found that making revisions in California was easier than in Maryland and Florida.
“It is most disappointing that the Stronach Group at no time sought to engage or have any discussions with [horsemen] regarding their recent divisive decision to seek to implement a ban on the use of Furosemide (Lasix) on race day for our horses,” said Timothy Keefe, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Assn., and Michael Harrison, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Assn.
The joint statement went on to say if the Lasix reduction were implemented, it could cause “irreparable harm to many of our horses.”
Michael Algeo, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, followed up, saying, according to theracingbiz.com, “They can make an announcement, but it’s in violation of the [state] regulation. I don’t think you’ll see it implemented here.”
While opposition in Florida hasn’t been as loud, it was just as united. Horsemen in the state have long fought any proposals to curb the use of the drug used to treat Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhaging (EIPH) or horses bleeding from their lungs while running. Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer of TSG, was sent to Florida to open discussion with the horsemen.
“All jurisdictions are different,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of TSG. “Some of them have regulatory change, some have statute change. So, there is a lot of work to be done but we have to continue on.”
Relative to a few months ago, things have been going very well at Santa Anita. Despite two fatalities in four days about a week ago, both the result of unusual injuries, the track had a run of six weeks without a catastrophic injury resulting in death. This weekend is the biggest remaining in the track’s winter-spring season, culminating with three $500,000 stakes races Monday.
Stronach is willing to listen to modifications to her initial stance on the regulations, especially if, in her opinion, it moves the sport forward.
“Sometimes if you wait for everything to be perfect, you never get out of the starting gate,” Stronach said. “So, we’ve taken a very principled stand and believe that ultimately horses should not be running on medication.”
There could also be changes to the proposal that riding crops, or whips, can be used only for safety reasons. A new crop was tried out at Keeneland that is said to cause no distress to horses. It could come up as a new proposal in a future California Horse Racing Board meeting, according a person familiar with the discussions but not authorized to discuss it.
“I think what we would like to see [with the riding crop] is no striking, no lifting above the shoulder, no cocking the whip,” Stronach said. “Striking is just not acceptable to today’s generation.” It is very similar to European rules.
Stronach seems firm in her goal to eliminate Lasix or other medications, but she understands the journey may not be as easy.
“We don’t want to make a decision, or enforce a decision, that has unintended consequences of harming horses,” Stronach said. “We have to recognize and appreciate the context of a medication like Lasix that is now being bred into our industry. And we have to figure out how to evolve out of that as fast as we can without … harming horses.”
The two groups who would stand to feel singled out as having to follow rules that others do not seemed to be OK with the situation.
“We strongly urge the rest of the country to adopt the … rules that were implemented in California,” said Greg Avioli, president and chief executive of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. “We think it’s critical that there is uniformity. While there has been some initial concern over the impact of these rules … it has not turned out to be as controversial or having the level of negative impact as people were concerned about when it was first announced.”
Alan Balch, executive director the California Thoroughbred Trainers, and Jim Cassidy, president of the CTT, also offered support.
“We applaud Belinda on her efforts to make the sport safer, in particular the increased scrutiny of training hours at Santa Anita and the addition of more supervisory veterinarians so that everyone, from owners to trainers to riders and racing officials, are more vigilant than ever before about injury prevention,” Balch and Cassidy said in a statement. “While our ability to use approved medication as therapy for respiratory conditions has been reduced, we understand the optics which led to that step."
Del Mar and Los Alamitos, which initially opposed the Santa Anita plan, especially about the use of Lasix, have said that they will use the same rules in place at Santa Anita.
A month ago, TSG, Churchill Downs Inc. and the New York Racing Assn., along with most of the independent tracks, such as Del Mar, Keeneland and Lone Star, came up with a plan that will be implemented next year.