Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Judy Chu call for halt to racing at Santa Anita over 23 horse deaths
Two federal lawmakers are calling for the suspension of horse racing at Santa Anita Park until investigators determine the cause of 23 horse deaths in the last four months.
Growing outrage over the repeated deaths has put the industry in a perilous position and cast a national spotlight on the famed Arcadia horse racing venue. Both the California Horse Racing Board and the Los Angeles County district attorney‘s office have launched investigations into the deaths.
On Tuesday, California Sen. Diane Feinstein sent a letter to CHRB Chairman Chuck Winner asking the board to halt racing at Santa Anita.
“The death of a single horse is a tragedy, but as a lifelong lover of horses, I’m appalled that almost two dozen horses have died in just four months,” Feinstein wrote in her letter.
‘Unique and serious problem’
Just a day earlier, Rep. Judy Chu, who has asked for a congressional inquiry into the deaths, said she believed racing should not continue. Chu described changes previously announced by Santa Anita’s owner as insufficient to address the problem.
“It is clear to me that there is a unique and serious problem at Santa Anita that requires a more serious solution,” she said.
In a statement, CHRB spokesman Mike Marten said Winner has not received the letter from Feinstein, but he is aware of it and believes it is inappropriate to comment before having a discussion with the senator. The California Horse Racing Board does not have the authority to suspend racing, according to Winner, but the board plans to schedule a special meeting in the next 10 days in regard to future racing dates.
The 23rd horse was injured during a race and euthanized Sunday, just three days after the venue reopened from a two-week hiatus. Though the spike seems out of the ordinary, during last year’s season — which was one of the safest at Santa Anita — 18 racing and training deaths were reported from Dec. 29 to March 30, five less than the current total.
With a spotlight on it, Santa Anita’s problems could snowball into a crisis for horse racing in California. Even if the cause of the spike is corrected, the track typically averages 50 deaths per year and there are several months left in the season. If this year is at the average, or higher, at least two dozen more horses will die before the season ends, with each new death creating more controversy.
This weekend, Santa Anita is hosting the Santa Anita Derby, a steppingstone to the prestigious Kentucky Derby in May.
There are no plans to cancel any of the races from Thursday to Sunday, according to spokesman Mike Willman. About 2,500 horses have worked out without incident since March 14, when the 22nd horse was euthanized, he said.
“Obviously, what happened Sunday is tragic,” Willman said. “And we don’t mean to minimize the very real problems that we’ve experienced since opening day, but we’re very, very confident both the main track and the turf are in prime condition.”
Surface experts have probed Santa Anita’s main track for signs of inconsistency and have cleared it as safe multiple times. Heavy rains in the first two months of the year were suspected of contributing to the deaths. However, investigators have yet to determine a cause for the deaths and some experts believe its unlikely there will ever be one clear-cut answer.
Still, the racetrack’s owners, The Stronach Group, have implemented sweeping changes as a result of the deaths, including limitations on medications, whips and the number of horses on the track at any given time.
There’s growing concern that if Santa Anita can’t stop the rising death toll, it could spell disaster for the industry in California.
Last week, the CHRB instituted a statewide rule limiting whips to emergency situations. Board members acknowledged whips likely did not contribute to the deaths, but made the changes anyway in an effort to manage the public’s perception of the sport.
Baffert concerned about bad publicity
“I’m concerned about the publicity we’ve been getting,” said Bob Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer, in an interview in the New York Times. “This is our March Madness. But we’re having the wrong kind of madness. We feel like we’re all under the gun. We should be under the gun. You can’t defend a horse getting hurt.”
Several groups, including PETA and the Jockey Club, have pushed for reforms in the aftermath of the deaths at Santa Anita. The Jockey Club is backing legislation in Congress that would create an independent anti-doping authority to develop and administer nationwide programs for horse racing. The national thoroughbred racing organization published a paper, titled “Vision 2025, To Prosper, Horse Racing Needs Comprehensive Reforms,” in late March.
“This isn’t about a single track — horse fatalities are a nationwide problem, one that has shocked the fans, the industry, the regulators and the general public,” the paper reads.
The Jockey Club wants a central rule-making authority, uniformity between different jurisdictions, more transparency and drug testing, and stricter reporting of injuries sustained by horses, among other reforms.