After Spate of 22 Horse Deaths, Santa Anita Set to Reopen on Mar. 29

Racing continues to be suspended at the track, with the two most recent deaths occurring during training.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the race track was set to reopen on Mar. 22.

Santa Anita Park officials plan to reopen the horse-racing track March 29 after a deal hammered out Saturday between the track and the Thoroughbred Owners of California is approved by the California Horse Racing Board.

The arrangement includes a delay to the banning of Lasix, a diuretic that helps prevent horses from hemorrhaging, according to the Daily Racing Forum. The Lasix ban was one of several changes to Santa Anita policies announced Thursday by officials with The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, as a result of the deaths of 22 horse at the famed track since Dec. 26.

But the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers -- which both support the use of Lasix -- balked at the ban, according to the DRF, and it will now begin with next year's crop of 2-year-olds. Additionally, race-day administration of Lasix will be reduced at a maximum of 50 percent of the current levels.

The deal was confirmed to City News Service by an official with the California Horse Racing Board.

Thoroughbred Daily News reported that a Friday meeting including "representatives of The Stronach Group (the track's owner) and various stakeholders" showed major disagreement on the Lasix issue.

The report quoted Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers.

"We had a lengthy, serious and frank exchange of views on Lasix, because we believe very strongly that the administration of Lasix is in the interest of the welfare of the horse," Balch said.

The Lasix ban was one of several changes to Santa Anita policies announced Thursday by officials with The Stronach Group.


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The other Santa Anita changes announced Thursday included strengthening the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy and anabolic steroids; "complete transparency of all veterinary records," an increase in out-of-competition testing; an increase in time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race; limiting use of the riding crops to "corrective safety" measures; and limiting horses in training to only receive therapeutic medication with a qualified veterinary diagnosis.

The proposed phase-out of Lasix did not please People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"California Thoroughbred owners and trainers are like Lasix addicts, but they're shooting up the horses instead of themselves," PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said in a written statement. "No horses outside the U.S. and Canada race with Lasix in their systems, and the owners' claim that its use must be phased out and not ended outright is transparently bogus."

"PETA is relieved that Santa Anita has finalized its ban on some of the cruelest racing practices -- including injection of joints with corticosteroids, painful shockwave therapy and whipping -- and has enacted medication rules that will end the use of Phenylbutazone 24 hours before a race and most other drugs in the week before a race, among other changes,'' Guillermo said.

"PETA will be watching very closely to see that these changes are implemented, and the public will join us in watching what happens to the horses. If one more horse dies, there will be blood on the owners' hands and hell to pay," she said.

The announced changes came hours after the most recent fatality.

Racing remains suspended at the track, with the two most recent deaths occurring during training.

On Friday, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office said it has assigned investigators to work with the California Horse Racing Board to determine if any criminal charges are warranted regarding the spate of deaths, a move that was called for last week by many animal-rights advocates.

Also Friday, the congresswoman whose district includes Santa Anita Park said the track should remain closed "until we know the horses are safe."

"I am outraged by the deaths at Santa Anita racetrack," Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, said in a statement. "Animals deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion, and the use of race-day medication like Lasix must stop. The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to the practice of injecting horses with this drug on race-day and we need answers on the impact of this practice at Santa Anita and throughout the country."

"I am calling on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate and hold a hearing on the treatment of horses at Santa Anita and throughout our country, and to examine legislation like the Horseracing Integrity Act that would improve safety for racehorses," Chu said. "I will work with my colleagues to ensure that all animals are treated humanely and to get to the bottom of this crisis."

Responding to Chu's statement, Santa Anita Park's director of publicity, Mike Willman, noted that "medication issues were dealt with very comprehensively in the form of an open letter from our chairman and president."

"At this time, we will not be elaborating on this statement but are hopeful Congresswoman Chu will take these groundbreaking protocols into account as she reviews this entire situation," Willman wrote in an e-mail.

Between December and February of the previous year, 10 horses died at Santa Anita, compared with eight in 2016-17 and 14 in 2015-16.

The track averaged about 50 deaths per year from 2008-18, according to data from the CHRB.

The unusually large amount of rain that has fallen over the Southland this winter has been mentioned as a possible factor in explaining the surge in deaths.

Former track superintendent Dennis Moore and Mick Peterson of Racing Services Testing Lab were brought in to conduct a thorough analysis of the main track, and officials repeatedly said they found no problems.

The issue is on the agenda for the next public meeting of the California Horse Racing Board that was moved to March 28 in northern California to allow for the required 10-day public notice.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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