The California Horse Racing Board on Friday put Los Alamitos on probation for 10 days while the track develops a plan to address an increase in horse deaths.
The board voted 5-1 remotely in an emergency meeting to allow the Orange County track to continue racing during the probation. Commissioner Wendy Mitchell was the lone dissenter.
According to the board, 19 horses have died from racing or training at the track in 2020, including eight since May 26.
Los Alamitos was the only track in California allowed to continue operating during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. It runs night racing Friday through Sunday featuring mostly quarter horses with some thoroughbred racing mixed in. The meet from June 26-July 5, which featured strictly thoroughbreds, did not have any fatalities, the CHRB said.
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Hall of Famer Bob Baffert is among the trainers who keep a division of horses at Los Alamitos to train or race before sending them to Santa Anita or Del Mar.
“As a track surface, I consider it the best surface. Los Alamitos is sort of the standard of all track surfaces,” Baffert told the racing board during the public comment portion of the two-hour meeting. “That is the safest racing surface that I've trained on.”
Greg Avioli, president and CEO of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, agreed with Baffert's opinion of the surface.
“The TOC would support the continuation of training and racing at Los Alamitos,” Avioli said.
Dr. Rick Arthur, the racing board's equine medical director, said, “I see no evidence that it's a track surface problem. I do not believe that Los Alamitos is an unsafe track."
New CHRB executive director Scott Cheney, who is not part of the six-member board, called for the emergency meeting on Thursday. Last year, the board was authorized by the state Legislature to stop racing at a track if it found it necessary. The expanded powers came after a sharp increase in horse deaths at Santa Anita.
Speaking on behalf of Los Alamitos, attorney Drew Couto told the board that the track has steadily decreased the number of racing and training deaths since 2008. “We all know sometimes deaths occur in clusters,” he said.
Before the vote, Mitchell said, “I'm disappointed a little that the Los Alamitos folks just had the attorney speak instead of coming up with a plan for addressing these increased deaths.”
CHRB chairman Gregory Ferraro said he wanted to hear more details from track management on its investigation of the deaths and a plan to deal with them.
“I think there is a culture there among the practicing veterinarians and trainers that are pushing the envelope of the safety of these horses,” he said. “In the interest of fairness, I think it would be one step too far to close Los Alamitos altogether.”
Ferraro proposed the motion to give the track 10 days of probation while management develops a plan to address the injuries and deaths. The board will hear from track officials at the end of the probation and consider whether the track should be suspended.
“I would rather bend over backwards in an attempt to be fair to Los Alamitos than to seem to be punitive without adequate information,” Ferraro said.
Several activists urged the board during the public comment period to shut down the track, with several airing their grievances about horse racing.