Santa Anita horse deaths overshadow reforms made elsewhere
Linda Gaudet can’t watch the replays.
Even after 47 years in horse racing, she turns away from any video showing one of the 23 fatalities over three months at Santa Anita Park.
“It was just devastating,” Gaudet said. “I still can’t stomach it.”
Neither can many others around horse racing. The alarming rate of horse deaths at Santa Anita plunged the industry into chaos and was a major blow to the sport’s public image going into Triple Crown season.
The tragedy was all too familiar for those who were around for spates of breakdowns years ago in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, and many still are perplexed officials at the California track didn’t act more quickly on proven reforms that previously had been recommended across the country years ago.
Those East Coast states investigated, diagnosed and successfully began to solve similar issues with a series of effective reforms.
“Why they took so long to get on top of it is beyond any of us,” said Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and co-author of the 2012 New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety. “When you see spates of breakdowns like this, which are very unusual, you know something’s going on and something is impacting it. Certainly here we would’ve thought that based on the work we did in 2011-2012 that they would’ve grabbed on to this thing much sooner than they did, and that’s part of the tragedy here.”
Much like the 21 horse deaths at Aqueduct in New York in 2011-12 that led to the task force, many believe the situation at Santa Anita was something of a perfect storm: a combination of a rainy winter after years of drought that affected the surfaces, pressure from ownership on horsemen to fill fields and possibly problems with medications used on horses. After the fatalities began Dec. 26, Santa Anita closed for almost all of March and has seemed to get the problem under control since reopening, though it already has hurt racing there.
“They’re seeing an exodus of horses. They’re seeing an exodus of horsemen. They’re now being forced to reduce racing days. They’re running short fields, and they’re in deep trouble,” Foreman said.
Horse racing officials from the Mid-Atlantic region, which consists of tracks in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Illinois, feel the findings of the 2012 task force provided a roadmap for Santa Anita. Since the recommendations from that task force were put into place, breakdowns in the Mid-Atlantic region have been reduced by 35%.
Foreman said last year the Mid-Atlantic was at the national average of 1.68 fatalities per 1,000 starts, which he called “unacceptable.” He and Gaudet believe the magnitude of the fallout at Santa Anita could have been avoided.
“This thing with Santa Anita, it is chaos because they’ve not done the proper investigation, the protocols,” said Gaudet, who has been with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association since its inception. “Most of the things that they want to do in California, we’ve already done here. We’ve been doing it. It’s nothing new. It should’ve been done a long time ago.”