SELF-INFLICTED DAMAGE AT SANTA ANITA

Los Angeles Times turf writer John Cherwa described the 23rd horse death in 2019 at Santa Anita: “Arms Runner, a 5-year-old gelding, fell on the dirt track crossover of a 6 1/2-furlong race on the hillside turf course. He appeared to suffer a catastrophic injury to his right front leg.”

Pretend you are a disinterested party with no background in horse racing and don’t have the cognitive biases of industry insiders. Assume as well that you are provided with some indisputable facts from the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, as follows:

Fact: The unsafest surface at Santa Anita is the downhill turf course (the track has two turf courses) with 2.58 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2018 and over 3.0 per thousand starts in 2017.

Question: In view of 23 recent horse deaths, why is Santa Anita still holding races on its riskiest surface?

Facts: In 2009, races on the main track at Santa Anita were run on a synthetic surface. Ownership tore out the synthetic surface in mid-2010 and replaced it with the dirt surface that has resulted in the majority of horse fatalities in 2019. On the newly-installed dirt surface, the number of horse fatalities spiked in 2011 to double digits and continued to remain high (compared to the fatalities on the older synthetic surface) every year since, escalating to 23 horse deaths so far in 2019.

Question: If horse/rider welfare really comes first at Santa Anita, as management asserts, what was the logic in 2010 of knowingly replacing a racetrack surface with one that is not nearly as safe? (The Equine Injury Database shows that horse fatalities per thousand starts at North American racetracks–from 2009-2018–averaged 1.20 on synthetic surfaces compared to 1.47 on turf and 1.97 on dirt.)

If the answer to this question is that North American bettors prefer dirt races, as does the Breeders’ Cup, then horse/rider safety is not the most important consideration in track-surface selection.

If you were that unbiased outsider just looking at the facts, what conclusions would you draw about Santa Anita’s actions?

Little wonder that the Equine Injury Database reveals that Santa Anita from mid-2010 to the present has been and continues to be one of the worst racetracks in North America for horse safety. And the distinction is largely self-inflicted.

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