Weekly Topic: 23 thoroughbred fatalities on California racetrack prompts task force, investigation and new legislation
Lauren Bernstein

23 thoroughbred fatalities on California racetrack

Earlier this month, California’s Santa Anita Park held its highly publicized Santa Anita Derby, the west coast’s important prep race on the road to the Kentucky Derby. But, 30,000 thoroughbred racing enthusiasts didn’t just turn out to catch a fleeting glimpse of the $1 million purse winner. They joined media outlets, race stewards, veterinarians, jockeys, and trainers in anxious anticipation of a safe and uneventful race.

The park has been the center of heated controversy after 23 horses died on its tracks since late December. Last year, only 10 horses died in this same period. Deaths occurred on different tracks, during both racing and training, and early necropsy reports found no common link among them. The owner of the park, the Stronach Group, closed the tracks for ground testing by independent experts during most of March.

Although they were deemed safe, this ground testing satisfied trainers who attributed the breakdowns to hard, packed surfaces following January and February’s heavy rains. Others, like animal welfare groups and Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director at the University of California, Davis, and a veterinary adviser for the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), say that there’s more to consider than just the weather. They are looking to the horse racing industry as a whole: horses race harder and more frequently, resting little and driving profitable industry norms that challenge the animals’ health and well-being.


D.A. forms task force to investigate animal cruelty

The fatalities have re-prioritized important questions about the ethics of the industry, including whether economics trump welfare and whether there should be stricter regulations on race-day administration of certain medications. These questions prompted the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, to ask the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office (D.A.) to open a criminal investigation into whether any of the deaths were caused by violations of California animal cruelty laws. On Tuesday, the D.A. announced that a task force of law enforcement officials and deputy district attorneys will investigate whether unlawful track conditions contributed to the compromised animal welfare.

In the weeks leading up to this announcement, the D.A. has worked with the CHRB Chief of Enforcement to examine the fatalities and engage industry stakeholders in discussions about more permanent legislative changes. The Stronach Group has cooperated with the investigations and released a statement that recognized the need to identify the larger issues underlying track injuries not only at Santa Anita, but also in the state and across the country.

In collaboration with the CHRB, Santa Anita Park announced important reforms that would overhaul the track’s medication policy and ensure veterinary oversight in improving safety. Animal welfare groups and the Jockey Club, which registers thoroughbreds in the U.S., support these reforms, understanding that the health, safety, and welfare of the rider and the horse are more important than racing economics. These changes would place strict limitations on pain medications and anti-inflammatories, reduce the controversial use of furosemide, and phase out all race-day medication starting with the 2018 foals. The park will require veterinary oversight on all treatments and enforce complete transparency of veterinary records. The Stronach Group also pledged to invest in diagnostic equipment which could detect potentially catastrophic conditions earlier.



LA Times

New legislation for horse racing safety

Later this month, California legislators will hold a joint oversight hearing on horse racing safety. The hearing will include testimony from industry experts who can identify key steps the industry can take to make these changes. State Senator Bill Dodd and Assemblymember Adam Gray will introduce Senate Bill 469, co-authored by Senator Susan Rubio and Assemblymember Ed Chau, whose districts include Santa Anita Park.

SB 469 will authorize the CHRB to suspend racing if dangerous, emergent issues exist, allowing temporary track closure to promptly address safety issues. Currently, the CHRB is not authorized to force such closures and is required to schedule emergency meetings a week-and-a-half in advance.

Legislators hypothesize that a hearing will enable a comprehensive review of horse and rider safety within the industry, and drive progressive reforms to improve racing conditions.

Horse Racing Nation


Additional resources

The Jockey Club White Paper (PDF)

California Horse Racing Board: 3/29/19 Press Release (PDF)

The Stronach Group: 3/31/19 Press Release

Lauren Bernstein

Lauren Bernstein

Lauren received her BS in Animal Science from the University of Tennessee. Following a Rotary International site visit to South Africa as an undergraduate student, she decided to focus her prospective veterinary career on public health, specifically on issues involving diseases at the human-animal-environment interface. She completed her veterinary education at the University College Dublin, School of Veterinary Medicine. When she's not in the office, she enjoys yoga, embracing the outdoor activities in Minneapolis, and finding excuses to talk about her rescue cat.