Column: Deaths and few solutions for horses at Santa Anita

They canceled racing at Santa Anita for one day this week, which should come as good news to horses scheduled to run on Friday the 13th.

Horses at the venerable Southern California track have had enough bad luck recently.

They’ve been dying at an alarming rate, even for a sport where breakdowns and deaths are part of the price for racing. A total of 23 horses died in racing or training at Santa Anita in a three-month stretch ending March 31 of last year, and nine more have died during the current racing season that began Dec. 27.

A long-awaited report released Tuesday was supposed to tell us why, and it did provide some evidence that horses are being trained too hard and raced too much. But the report mostly raises even more questions about the facility — and the horse racing industry itself.

The bottom line? Horses are still dying, and nobody seems to know for sure what to do about it.

That includes the California Horse Racing Board, which set up a group of industry insiders to study the deaths. Not surprisingly, it largely passed off blame to unknown factors, though the 76-page report made sure to point out there was no evidence of animal welfare violations and that no trainers blamed the track itself for any fatalities.

Still, there were some recommendations to make things safer in the future. The report proposes more education for horse trainers and more research into the kinds of injuries that race horses tend to suffer.

It also includes stricter measures for canceling racing in bad weather and, with rain expected in Southern California this week, that was enough to call off Friday’s action.

“We're moving to reform racing as best we can over the next year to 18 months,” CHRB chairman Greg Ferraro said.

That may be true, even though the report itself suggests few real reforms. Among the suggestions is that Santa Anita consider replacing its dirt track with a synthetic surface, but that’s an expensive process and there’s no indication it will be seriously considered by the track owner.

Animal rights activists have over the years offered their own suggestions, all the way up to closing tracks and banning the sport all together. They say the industry can never be able to police itself and that horses suffer unduly and die because of it.

Those suggestions aren’t likely to gain much traction but it’s true that horse racing is a dangerous sport — especially for the horses.

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office did its own investigation into the Santa Anita deaths, releasing a report in December that found no criminal liability and no evidence of animal cruelty among those who handle the horses. Still, the report looked at the last decade and found that 49 horses died at Santa Anita during the 12-month period ending last June, and that the year was not statistically that unusual.

“Horse racing has inherent risks but is a legally sanctioned sport in California,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said. “Greater precautions are needed to enhance safety and protect both horses and their riders.”

Those precautions, at least so far, are a mixed bag. In the wake of last year’s deaths, Santa Anita imposed stronger rules for medicating horses and installed new equipment to catch preexisting conditions that might cause breakdowns.

The CHRB has also been busy, effectively banning most medications on race day and putting limitations on how much jockeys use their whips.

But there’s only so much that can be done to make the sport less dangerous for horses. That’s especially true when there are people in the sport who will go to great lengths to make sure their horses come out on top.

A day before the report was issued, horse racing took a blow from a federal investigation that revealed widespread doping of horses. More than two dozen trainers, veterinarians and drug distributors, including two prominent East Coast trainers, were named in a federal indictment charging them with crimes in the probe.

Among those charged was trainer Jason Servis, who was accused of running a widespread scheme to obtain and administer PEDs to horses. One of Servis’s horses, Maximum Security, appeared to win the Kentucky Derby last year before being disqualified for interference.

The indictment couldn’t have come at a worse time for the troubled horse racing industry, which over the years has proven to be its own worst enemy. Once one of the top spectator sports in the United States, horse racing is barely hanging on in most parts of the country and barely recognized except during the Triple Crown races.

Real reform is needed, from the paddock to the track.

Without it, there might not be a sport left to save.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or

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