By Joe Bianca
Off the heels of Thursday morning’s 22nd reported equine fatality at Santa Anita since its current meet opened, The Stronach Group has moved to ban race-day medication, including Lasix, at the Arcadia oval as well as its Northern California track Golden Gate Fields. The Stronach Group’s Chairman and President Belinda Stronach penned a lengthy open letter announcing the drastic shift in policy, which coincided with a brief press conference given by chief operating officer Tim Ritvo at Santa Anita.
“What has happened at Santa Anita over the last few weeks is beyond heartbreaking,” Stronach said. “It is unacceptable to the public and, as people who deeply love horses, to everyone at The Stronach Group and Santa Anita. The sport of horse racing is the last great sporting legacy platform to be modernized. If we expect our sport to grow for future generations, we must raise our standards. Today, I’m announcing The Stronach Group will take the unprecedented step of declaring a zero tolerance for race-day medication at Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields. These Thoroughbred racetracks will be the first in North America to follow the strict International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) standards.”
Standing on the grandstand apron on live television, Ritvo read from a brief prepared statement, saying, “Any change is hard, but the love of the horse supercedes all else. We know firsthand that owners, trainers and jockeys love and care deeply for their horses. We love the horses too and we’re making these changes to put the health and welfare of the horse and rider first. We are looking forward to working closely with the industry partners as these changes are implemented. It is important that everyone review these comprehensive changes. We will be answering follow-up questions at a later date.”
Describing this as a “watershed moment,” Stronach announced that, in addition to banning Lasix, the new policy will increase the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDs, joint injections, shockwave therapy and anabolic steroids.
Basing her directive on “best practices currently employed at racetracks around the world,” Stronach also called for complete transparency of all veterinary records, increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race, significantly increasing out-of-competition testing, instituting a rule that horses in training are only allowed therapeutic medication with a qualified veterinary diagnosis and “a substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.”
Stronach brought up the issue of whip usage as well, saying, “Additionally, it is time to address the growing concern about use of the riding crop. A cushion crop should only be used as a corrective safety measure. While we firmly believe our jockeys have not purposely been mistreating their mounts, it is time to make this change.”
She added, “We will be continuing our daily conversations with industry stakeholders to further define these transformative guidelines. But make no mistake: these changes will be implemented. The time to discuss ‘why’ these advancements must take place is over. The only thing left to discuss is ‘how.’ There are some who will take a stand and tell us that it cannot be done. To them, we say, ‘The health and welfare of the horses will always come first.’ We also say, ‘not only can it be done, it is what we are doing.’ Racing at Santa Anita and Golden Gate is a privilege, it is not a right.”
The issues at Santa Anita had the potential to complicate this year’s Breeders’ Cup, set to be run at “The Great Race Place” for a record 11th time, but in a statement, Breeders’ Cup stood behind The Stronach Group and the track.
“Like all of racing, we are profoundly saddened by the loss of a life at any racetrack and we are heartbroken for those whose livelihoods are dedicated to the care of our horses,” the statement read. “As an organization, the Breeders’ Cup stands for the highest levels of safety and integrity. We support the effort by The Stronach Group to propose important changes and we commit to working with the racing industry in California and elsewhere to achieve meaningful reform on a national basis. We recognize that for real change to result from this difficult situation we must engage those stakeholders quickly and dedicate time and other resources. We must, as an industry, press forward on implementing existing best practices and rapidly proceed with the consideration of further reforms such as those proposed by The Stronach Group in California. It is vital that we all do so.”
“This is a tipping point and I hope we see more racing companies take such powerful steps,” said Jim Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club. “Now, more than ever, we need to reform the regulation of the sport such that we will be in step with all other racing nations, where the rate of fatal injury is less than half that of North America. And to those industry leaders that have said the status quo is OK, it is time to come clean and admit that our low standards and uneven rules remain a major weakness for the sport.”
Stronach noted that her company has spoken with the California Horse Racing Board, who will be holding a meeting Mar. 21 at which the situation at Santa Anita will be addressed. She also acknowledged the impact on business the decision will have, but said The Stronach Group is willing to assist horses who may not be able to race without medication.
“We recognize this will impact our field size as horses and horsemen adjust to this new standard,” she wrote. “There will be horses that will not be able to race because they have required medication to do so. For those horses, we are prepared to dedicate the capital required to rehabilitate, retrain, rehome and provide aftercare for them. They deserve nothing less.”
Reactions from California horsemen started to pour in shortly after the announcement, with trainer Doug O’Neill among the staunchest supporters of The Stronach Group’s decision.
“I’m 100% behind it,” the two-time GI Kentucky Derby-winning conditioner said. “I think it’s so important that people who haven’t been to the barn area or haven’t been to the races realize how much we love and care for our horses. I think it’s time to do away with race-day medication. I applaud the Stronach Group for stepping up and doing something that’s earth-shattering when it comes to American racing.”
Simon Callaghan pointed out that the regulatory measures Santa Anita announced Thursday morning put the track in line with many other racing jurisdictions around the world. “You know, I’ve trained in Europe, so, to me it’s not going to make a big difference,” he said. “We’ll make some adjustments, and I think it’s something we need to embrace rather than pull against.”
Trainer Richard Mandella said that he doesn’t think the new changes will affect the way he runs his operation. “I’m fine. I don’t have a problem,” he told TDN. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to set the world right.”
While he said he’s not sure the changes will, on their own, reduce fatality rates at the track, Mandella added that he thought it’s the right move in terms of optics. “The attempt is for the good, but whether it works or not, time will tell. I wouldn’t want someone to take Lasix away from me and not somebody else, but if it’s all gone, so be it. We’ll live. Whatever the rules are, I’ll do the best I can.”
Some horsemen were less positive, namely perennial leading Southern California trainer Peter Miller, who said, “I think it is inhumane to race bleeders without Lasix. I will be looking to move all of my bleeders out of California. I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction.”
“It’s always good that the welfare of the horse comes first, and I’m all for the elimination of NSAIDs for limiting breakdowns, but I’m not too sure how being off Lasix is going to help with that,” trainer Leonard Powell said. “It helps some horses and I don’t think that any of the breakdowns are related to the usage of Lasix, but it is what it is and we have to make the best of it. It’s not something I oppose, that’s for sure, but everybody knows that some horses need that help and some horses are going to leave the circuit. I’m sure that some [trainers] are upset about this; some not. I hope that the owners support it.”
California Thoroughbred Trainers board member Ray Bell vowed that the trainers will do “everything in their power” to go along with whatever new measures are implemented, adding, “Anything that will ensure the safety and welfare of the horses is our foremost concern.”
California Horse Racing Board executive director Rick Baedeker commented that this is an unprecedented situation, “and the actions are equally unprecedented, but I think appropriate in this case.”
It is presumed, said Baedeker, that the new measures will require approval by the acknowledged horseman’s organization, in this case the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC).
Indeed, the state rules that “any conditions” that are based on a participating horse’s use of a drug or medication, or the presence of a drug or medication in a biological test sample taken from a participating horse, “shall be agreed to in advance in writing by the acknowledged horsemen’s organization, which, in the case of Thoroughbreds, shall be the owner’s organization, and approved by the Board before entries are taken for the race.”
Nevertheless, Baedeker said that the CHRB has only been aware of these measures “for a few hours, so we’ll need time to analyze the implementation of these changes from a legal standpoint,” and added that other rules regarding private property could possibly come into play.
“I’d like to presume that everybody will understand the necessity [of these measures], and move forward together,” said Baedeker. “The current situation requires bold action.”
Concluding her letter, Stronach said, “We are taking a step forward and saying, quite emphatically, that the current system is broken. While the cause of the injuries on the racetrack might be varied, they have one thing in common: the industry has yet to do everything that can be done to prevent them. That changes today. First and foremost, we must do right by the horse. When we do right by the horse, everything–everything–will follow.”
Click here to read Stronach’s full letter.
Additional reporting for this story was provided by Dan Ross, Sue Finley, Bill Finley and Kelsey Riley.