THE SANTA ANITA CONUNDRUM

In the wake of another horse death at Santa Anita Park on January 19, 2020, Los Angeles racing writer John Cherwa wrote: “There is…the possibility that an amendment could be placed on the California ballot that could outlaw horse racing in the state.  However, at this point, there is no indication that the anti-horse racing factions have the signatures to get it on the ballot.”

Sunday’s fatality was not the result of a catastrophic breakdown, but rather of a collision during training hours.  It was the third fatality in three days and the first to occur on the main dirt track in 2020, with the others taking place in turf races.

Since December 2018, Santa Anita has experienced 42 horse fatalities.  And there have been five fatalities from the track’s opening for racing on December 28, 2019 to the present.  This compares to six fatalities at this time a year ago.  Therefore, the pace of 2020 incidents is similar to 2019. Horses are dying and the negative publicity threatens horse racing’s image and viability not only in California but nationwide.

An article on HorseRacingBusiness.com on April 19, 2019, said in part:

“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.”

Upper-level executives at The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, have obviously been unable to do much to vastly improve racetrack safety, despite consulting experts.  While the dangerous situation at Santa Anita likely is the confluence of several causes, track safety, on both dirt and turf, is a major contributor.  Data from the Equine Injury Database are quite convincing in this regard. 

The Stronach Group has two realistic but unattractive choices.  First, it can continue with the 2020 meet and gamble that the horse fatalities so far in 2020 are an aberration.  Second, it can halt the meet, install a Tapeta synthetic surface to replace the main dirt track, abandon racing altogether on the downhill turf course and continue to work on the other turf course.

The second option would be costly in terms of financial loss, in the immediate term, but it would almost certainly enhance horse safety and have the secondary effect of staving off a statewide ballot initiative that could very well outlaw horse racing in California, just as dog racing was banned in Florida. Premier races like the Santa Anita Derby could be relocated temporarily to Golden Gate Fields, a Stronach Group track in San Francisco, similar to how the Belmont Stakes and other important races were moved to Aqueduct when Belmont Park was undergoing renovation.

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