By Dan Ross
California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) chairman Chuck Winner told the TDN that he and the board’s executive director, Rick Baedeker, are in communication with California senator Dianne Feinstein’s office as they try to organize a call with the senator “at her convenience” as part of an ongoing dialogue with the influential lawmaker.
On Monday, the senator called once again for a moratorium on horse racing at Santa Anita, as well as the need for a “thorough investigation of practices and conditions” at the track after three horses were fatally injured within the space of nine days. Before the latest three catastrophic breakdowns, there were no fatalities at the track for six weeks, during which time an estimated 50,000 horses exercised. On top of that, there were 698 starters on the main track and 651 on turf, according to The Stronach Group figures.
“It’s actually [Feinstein’s] suggestion,” Winner said, about the anticipated call. “She continued to keep us informed with respect to her thinking and her reasons.”
The CHRB doesn’t currently have the unilateral authority to immediately suspend racing. A new state bill introduced in April would give the CHRB that muscle, but it’s still passing through the state legislature.
Winner said that “anything” the senator might publicly state concerning horse racing would trigger “discussions both positive and negative” between industry stakeholders, and he added that the CHRB is in discussions “every day” with TSG about “what can be done to improve the situation.”
When asked whether there were plans to suspend racing at Santa Anita, Winner responded, “No, not to my knowledge…at this time.”
For their part, the Stronach Group responded with the following statement: “Santa Anita Park has led the way in implementing the historic reforms that modern racing requires. Following this new procedure for the seven weeks from the beginning of April through the middle of May, there have been over 100,000 training or racing sessions at the racecourse at Santa Anita, and there was not one single catastrophic injury. Our goal is to maintain this record each and every day that the race track operates. If there is any incident, we are committed to conduct a top-to-bottom review with the intent to further strengthen our new protocols and to continuously improve. Our new practices must be followed by all stakeholders with a zero tolerance approach, and anyone who doesn’t comply will no longer be able to race at any Stronach Group track. Suspending racing at the track now will not advance these efforts, as we will continually strive to improve horse safety at our track now and for years to come.”
In her Monday statement, Feinstein asked, “How many more horses must die before concrete steps are taken to address what is clearly an acute problem?”
“I believe we need to carefully review what medications horses are given and under what circumstances, as well as take a close look at the issue of overrunning horses, which may be contributing to deaths,” she added.
Hot on the heels of Feinstein’s statement, PETA issued a press release Tuesday calling for the suspension of racing nationwide “until every racing jurisdiction matches or surpasses what California has done.”
Winner said, “I absolutely appreciate what Kathy Guillermo and the PETA people are saying with respect to the reforms that we are making in California and the industry’s making.”
But Winner added that he disagrees with the idea of suspending racing nationwide.
“My own view is that changes can be made in a positive way, and that those changes can be made nationally without shutting down racing,” said Winner.
Feinstein had previously called for the suspension of racing at Santa Anita back in April, after which Winner and Baedeker met the politician for a working lunch in San Francisco–a meeting that Winner described afterwards as “very constructive.”
The senator’s latest pronouncement follows three recent fatalities that bring to 26 the number of racehorses that have died since racing resumed at Santa Anita last December.
At last week’s joint hearing in Sacramento, Rick Arthur, CHRB equine medical director, explained that the first two horses to breakdown after that fallow period suffered injuries that were “different” to the first 23 fatalities.
On May 17, 3-year-old gelding Commander Coil fractured a shoulder–an injury that typically occurs due to “bone weakening associated with a pre-existing stress fracture,” according to experts at UC Davis. The injury occurred while the horse was galloping. Two days later, Spectacular Music suffered an unusual pelvis injury during racing. The 3-year-old was making his racecourse debut.
This Saturday, the 9-year-old gelding Kochees suffered an injury during racing, and was euthanized the next day after efforts to save him failed. According to Arthur, the injury that Kochees sustained was “more similar” to the earlier cases.
At last week’s joint hearing in Sacramento, Baedeker explained how investigations into the fatalities–a joint venture with the L.A. County District Attorney’s office–are ongoing, but could be completed within a month.
The issue of who has the authority to suspend racing is one that has swirled ever since the spike in equine fatalities at Santa Anita first made headlines this winter. Baedeker has previously explained to the TDN that the board has the authority to transfer race dates from one track to another track if it receives approval from both participating tracks.
If the CHRB doesn’t receive approval from both tracks, then the board has the authority to unilaterally move race dates around, but only if it receives a race dates application which is subsequently posted for at least 10 days.