Beginning in December 2018 and continuing throughout 2019, the number of on-track horse fatalities at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California soared and understandably produced a public relations nightmare for racing in the United States.  The national media reported on the fatalities, prominent political figures in California became involved, and various animal-protection groups were vehement in their criticism, rightfully so with so many horse casualties.  Horse racing can never be free of on-track horse breakdowns and fatalities, but the incidents at Santa Anita were far beyond the norm and were unacceptable.

The 2020 16-day fall meet at Santa Anita provided a welcome dose of good news:  no on-track fatalities occurred, either during racing or morning workouts.  Over the meet, there were 1,100 starts. 

For the entirety of 2020, Santa Anita was fatality-free in 99.89% of 4,871 starts.  This is equivalent to 1.02 fatalities per 1,000 starts, compared to 3.01 in 2019 and 2.04 in 2018.

In the wake of the rash of fatalities in late 2018 and throughout 2019, Santa Anita made marked changes in medication policies and instituted a voided claim rule.  The latter means that a person who purchases a horse in a claiming race can void the claim if the horse is grade two lame or higher on a grading scale devised by the American Association of Equine Practitioners.  This rule is meant as a deterrent to a trainer running a lame horse in order to foist the animal off to an unsuspecting party.

While a 16-day meet is not enough of a sample to make predictions, Santa Anita ownership and management appear to have made an effective course correction that has dramatically improved horse and rider safety. Del Mar near San Diego also has had reduced fatalities at its 2020 summer/fall meet, with a single horse fatality due to an awkward start rather than a breakdown. The winter and spring meet in late 2020 and early 2021 at Santa Anita will yield more evidence, as weather conditions, especially rain, will emerge as challenges to track conditions.

For now, things are looking up but it is too soon to break out the champagne.

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