Santa Anita Park headed into 2020 with the hopes of a much better year than the prior one. A total of 37 horses died at the racetrack in 2019 from a variety of injuries and situations.
The track began to implement strict horse welfare policies in late 2019 and early 2020, making them more rigorous as the deaths increased. But that didn’t stop the deaths, as the very first one of the new year was recorded on January 1.
It was the 10th race of the day, on New Year’s Day. Victor Espinoza was riding Golden Birthday down the stretch of the turf and leading, setting the pace on the inside, when the four-year-old took a bad step. The exact injury wasn’t clear at first, but veterinarians quickly recommended the gelding be euthanized. Later, it was determined that Golden Birthday sustained a “hind pastern fracture with sesamoid involvement.”
Sadly, that was only the beginning to a year plagued by more thoroughbred deaths and a pandemic that restricted spectators from mid-March and stopped racing altogether on March 27. That order was later extended through the end of April and into May.
As March got underway, Santa Anita had already recorded eight thoroughbred deaths and then added its ninth, a five-year-old gelding. Edwin Maldonado rode Chosen Vessel on Saturday, February 29, in the ninth race of the Santa Anita Breeders Cup. As they approached the far turn, Chosen Vessel sustained a left front angle fracture. Veterinarians at the Equine Hospital deemed it an unrecoverable injury, and they euthanized the horse.
On April 2, Smiling Ali was on a training run on the main dirt track. The filly was two years old and hadn’t yet raced but was taking part in her first timed workout. Jeff Bonde was her trainer. Just after completing a two-furlong timed workout, she died of what veterinarians initially believed was a heart attack.
M C Hamster became the 11th casualty of 2020 on April 15 when the four-year-old filly was working out at the track. She fractured her left front ankle on the main dirt track after completing a three-furlong workout. Ryan Hanson was her trainer.
On Saturday, April 24, Last Renegade was participating in a morning training session. The two-year-old colt was preparing for a first race when he unseated his rider, ran loose, bucked when his saddle slipped, and he became tangled in his reins. He was caught and brought back to the barn, and he died while being examined by a vet. Santa Anita is calling Last Renegade’s death an accident.
No Wrongdoing by Santa Anita
Investigations ensued in 2019 when horses were dying at an unprecedented rate. None of them found Santa Anita to be at fault for the thoroughbred deaths, but they did recommend safety improvements.
For example, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey issued a 17-page report in December 2019. It concluded that Santa Anita Park was not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing or incidences of animal cruelty, but the report included more than two dozen recommendations to improve track conditions. Those were directed at all California racetracks.
Lacey aimed some of her recommendations at the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), indicating that they should release an annual racing fatality report and enhance penalties for rule violations.
Horse Care and Safety
The page of Santa Anita’s website dedicated to horse care starts with a statement: “Santa Anita Park and The Stronach Group are committed to being at the forefront of horse and rider welfare as we take horse racing into the modern era and beyond.”
In compliance with CHRB regulations, there is a safety steward assigned to the track to enforce rules and procedures, spend time in stables and monitoring track safety and horse treatment. CHRB investigators patrol the stables, tracks, and training facilities. All catastrophic injuries must produce a necropsy report. All horses are required to submit to pre-race exams and continuous observations.
The latest procedural reforms at Santa Anita Park mostly apply to medications but include physical oversight for the horses as well.
- Trainers must apply for permission to work a horse at least 48 hours in advance.
- Trainers must submit pre-entry vet forms before race days to give vet staff more time to examine.
- Horses must be at Santa Anita for an increased length of time prior to racing.
- The Stronach Group invested $500,000 into a new PET scanner to detect pre-existing conditions.
- Track surface experts must inspect dirt and turf courses daily.
- Position of Chief Veterinary Officer must oversee all veterinarian decisions and actions.
Reopening Anticipated in May
It is unlikely that the 2020 thoroughbred deaths will weigh on any decision to reopen the track after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. The LA County Health Department and LA County Supervisor will make those decisions regarding COVID-19.
Santa Anita Park sent a proposal to decision-makers to request that live racing be allowed once again, with or without spectators. Even if the proposal is approved, track employees will require at least one week to implement new protocols before racing resumes.