By Dan Ross
In a rare hearing on horse racing in the California state Capitol in Sacramento Wednesday, industry leaders such as Mike Smith, Bob Baffert and The Stronach Group (TSG) Chairman and President Belinda Stronach took turns before state lawmakers to discuss the efforts the sport has taken to improve the welfare and safety of the sport’s equine and human athletes, as well as the measures that still need to be instituted.
Early last month, California state Senator Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, announced the joint hearing in response to the high number of equine fatalities at Santa Anita this past winter. Giving this hearing unintended timeliness were the two fatalities at Santa Anita over the weekend–something that lawmakers brought up on various occasions.
Wednesday’s speakers were broken into groups covering various talking points. Though never adversarial–and in most cases noticeably deferential towards the speakers–lawmakers were perhaps most vigorous in the questions they aimed towards Dionne Benson, the newly minted chief veterinary officer for the TSG; and Stronach, who in her opening remarks described California racing as “the safest in North America,” before running through the changes that Santa Anita has already instituted, along with further ones on the horizon.
“Since we have re-opened Santa Anita, just to put a little context around things, we’ve had about 100,000 sessions on the track,” said Stronach, highlighting the number of horses racing, training and breezing during that time. “We’ve had 200,000 since the opening of this season, which was in December. We’ve had 1,500 horses racing. We’ve had over 7,000 workouts, which means breezing. We’ve had over 90,000 horses galloping. And every single day we have about 1,700 horses on the track. So those are very high numbers.”
Benson highlighted the stricter standards that TSG instituted concerning NSAIDS, corticosteroids, and pre-race examination protocols, and she described the new PET scan machine–scheduled to arrive at Santa Anita later this year–as “a game changer for us.”
Assemblyman Gray repeatedly pressed TSG representatives about their focus on whip and Lasix usage, and the questions that linger about their connection to breakdown rates.
Stronach responded that whip and Lasix usage are “significant” public perception issues for the sport, and without addressing them, the industry would see a “continued decline.”
Gray wasn’t satisfied, however, and continued to press the issue.
“I’m often asked, ‘well, if they can run in Europe without Lasix, why can’t you?'” responded Stronach, before adding that there remains a “mixed debate around the science” of Lasix and catastrophic injuries.
Senator Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park–in whose district Santa Anita sits–said that she takes calls “all the time” from constituents who cite inflated numbers of fatalities at Santa Anita. “And I don’t know how to accurately defend it,” she said. “The message keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
Stronach responded that there is “more work to do” in that regard.
Kicking off proceedings, CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker gave an overview into the ongoing investigation into the equine fatalities this year at Santa Anita. The investigations could be completed within a month, said Baedeker, who added during a later line of questioning that a common thread between the fatalities is unlikely to be identified.
To a question about the speed of the industry’s response as fatality numbers mounted at Santa Anita, Baedeker expressed frustration that the CHRB didn’t have the authority to unilaterally suspend racing. In context here, Senator Dodd and Assemblyman Gray introduced new legislation in April authorizing the CHRB such authority. That bill is passing through the state legislature.
Attendees gave a round-of-applause when Baedeker explained that there is a provision in veterinary medical law that means the CHRB can require veterinary records be transferred with a horse. “That’s a relatively new provision in our rules and reg’s,” he said.
When asked about the latest two fatalities over the weekend at Santa Anita, Rick Arthur, CHRB equine medical director, explained that they were “different” to the first 23.
Because the afternoon hearing started late, many of the speakers were asked to cut their prepared statements short, including Smith, who explained that there are risk factors in all sports, and that these inherent risk factors were exacerbated by the weather during the winter. However, “if you gave me two more races to ride, it would be at Santa Anita and Del Mar,” he said, emphasizing how safe he thought California tracks are.
Smith then explained how the cushioned riding crop was designed not to hurt the horse, and he described it as a “necessary tool,” when asked by Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, to explain the three-strike rule. When Gipson followed up, asking what the industry can do to improve its safety record, Baffert jumped in to emphasize how California is the most regulated racing jurisdiction in the country.
“[Horses] jump through a lot of hoops before they get to that starting gate,” he said. “My two Triple Crown winners train[ed] on that surface,” he added, about the Santa Anita track. And the recent fatalities, he added, have led to substantive change. “Trainers are going to do a better job policing themselves,” he said.
Helping to provide the national perspective, Alex Waldrop, President and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, ran through a series of industry acronyms central to the safety issue, including the Racing and Medication Testing Consortium (RMTC) and the National Uniform Medication Program.
“I will note that California has adopted, or is in the process of adopting, all of our RMTC recommended national model rules,” said Waldrop.
Mick Peterson, director of the University of Kentucky’s Ag Equine Programs and an expert in racetrack surfaces, took the lawmakers though a crash-course in racetrack maintenance. “Our goal in this is to treat a racetrack like you would an airplane,” said Peterson, listing as an example the sorts of safety protocols that commercial airplanes undergo before each flight.
Among those illustrating the economic impact of horse racing in the state was John Valenzuela, president of the Pari-Mutuel Employees Guild of California, who explained how the recent events have hit his members hard.
“One of our local 280 members,” said Valenzuela, “has been deeply impacted by the reduction to three days a week. She was forced to get another job to supplement her income, and is using a car given to her by her family for transportation. She is barely making ends meet. And as her income is below poverty level, she has moved into section 8 housing.”
The closing public comment period was taken up by two animal rights advocates. One was Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of PETA, who said that “every year, dozens and dozens of horses die on California racetracks,” and that “there’s more that can be done” to protect racehorses in the state.