By Dan Ross
The four horses catastrophically injured at Santa Anita over the past four days have underscored once again how fatalities at the track this winter are higher than in comparable periods over the last three years, leaving track management, regulators and the horsemen themselves scrambling for answers that aren’t always easy to come by.
In an unusual turn of events yesterday, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) released the numbers on horses fatally injured at Santa Anita between Dec. 26, when racing started, and Feb. 23. During that time, 18 horses died-6 on the dirt during racing, 5 on the turf during racing, and another 7 during morning training. Another horse, a 3-year-old gelding named Charmer John, was euthanized during training hours this morning. Typically, information on fatalities as granular as this could only be accessed by the public through stewards minutes, which aren’t always accurate.
In a decision made Sunday, the main track was closed for training this morning at 9 a.m. It will remain closed through Tuesday. During this time, track superintendent Andy LaRocco’s crew will “peel back” about five inches of the track’s cushion to examine the base, while the surface’s soil consistency and moisture will also be analyzed.
The track was originally scheduled to be closed this morning for maintenance work, but push-back from horsemen saw it re-opened until 9 a.m. “Maybe they shouldn’t have opened it,” California Thoroughbred Trainers president Jim Cassidy said, in light of the breakdown this morning. Cassidy has two horses entered on Thursday, and if track management don’t find anything wrong with the surface, he plans to run them. “If they find a problem, then yeah, they probably should hold off [with the races]” he said. “If they don’t find anything, then you have to go along with it.”
Myriad factors weigh into any catastrophic injury. As CHRB medical director Rick Arthur routinely points out, between 85 and 90 percent of all musculoskeletal-related fatalities have pre-existing pathology at the site of the injury. Race-day catastrophic injury risk factors include racehorse age and race distance. And not all fatalities are due to musculoskeletal injuries, of course. One of the training fatalities at Santa Anita this year was due to sudden cardiac death.
All horses fatally injured at Santa Anita this winter underwent, or will undergo, a standard necropsy. According to Arthur, about 1/3 of the necropsies have been completed. Some necropsies take longer than others, “depending on the circumstances,” said Arthur. A typical range is between six and 12 weeks. If the pathologist performs certain special procedures, like bone demineralization and histological examinations, the longer the necropsy typically takes.
Among the completed necropsies, Arthur was unwilling to comment on any possible underlying trends. “Anything I say at the moment would be speculation,” he said. “We’re always looking for trends-always looking for issues that can be addressed. It’s an ongoing process.”
Nevertheless, it’s on Santa Anita’s racing surfaces that the bulk of the attention has been focused, and that’s due largely to the 11 1/2 inches of rain that has this year lashed the facility. “At Santa Anita, it’s dry, dry, dry, and then suddenly it floods,” said Mick Peterson, an expert in racetrack surfaces, who will head out to Santa Anita on Wednesday to assist the track superintendent, Andy LaRocco. At the heart of the issue, said Peterson, is the matter of consistency-what is described in this Grayson-Jockey Club Racing Surfaces White Paper as integral to the “performance and orthopedic health of the horse.”
So, what do we know of the consistency of Santa Anita’s racing surfaces?
According to Peterson, the moisture content is routinely monitored, and samples of the track are taken monthly and sent for analysis at a laboratory in Kentucky. The samples are tested to determine the combination of sand, silt and clay in the track. As for how the samples are taken, there are two main protocols. Ordinarily, four samples are taken at the quarter poles roughly seven feet from the inside rail. After periods of rain, two samples-one at three feet and one at 15 feet from the inside-are taken at the quarter pole and the wire, and further samples are taken at the 1/8 pole, the 3/4 pole, and the 1/2 pole at seven feet from the rail.
“You can picture what we’re doing-we’re looking at the variation from the middle of the racing lanes to the inside of the racing lanes,” said Peterson. “And we’re looking circumferentially at the variation around the track. We’ve got to keep both consistent.”
The first set of samples since the rain-using the second testing protocol-have been sent to Kentucky. The results could be back by Thursday.
What Peterson expects to find is the finer particles of silt and clay in the racetrack surface to have washed to the rail, leaving the larger, coarser particles of sand towards the outside. If that’s the case, there are two possible responses the track management can take, said Peterson. The first is to take a “grader” to move the materials to the middle of the track before pulling it back to the edges. “It’s just like mixing dough,” he said. Or else, the track staff can go “round and round” with the harrows. “What you’re looking for is consistency.”
This “mixing” process will begin when the track is peeled back, said Peterson, and could continue after he arrives Wednesday. “We will keep taking samples until the consistency is within the error of our testing,” he said. “The process is not unusual, just the intensity.”
Five of the 18 fatalities at Santa Anita this year have been on the turf track, which was completely renovated last year. Peterson said the “drainage at Santa Anita is fine.” But identifying any potential issue with the turf is that much tougher than with the dirt because of a dearth of diagnostic technologies, said Peterson.
“We need better tools. Right now, turf is a huge frustration to me,” said Peterson, who added that “if done carefully and consistently,” the turf moisture probe can be a “terrific” tool. “You know what I look at? Hoofprints. What I’m looking for is a hoof that penetrates down in, where the toe penetrates down in, and it doesn’t sheer out the surface. You don’t get it cupping out or divoting.”
Where data holes exist, so does speculation. And contrary to widely-assumed wisdom, a sealed track is not an unsafe track, as has been proven by data out of Minnesota, said Peterson. “The challenge is when you transition from a sealed track to an open track. You run the risk of a very hard sealed track as it’s beginning to dry out.”
Exacerbating this problem is how different parts of the track dry at different rates, said Peterson. “You’ve got the shadows on the front stretch. The clubhouse turn tends to get a lot of wind across it. The sun and the wind hits turn one and two, but turns three and four are very different. There’s no way to fix that, and that’s where the experience of the trackmen matter.”
Andy LaRocco recently assumed the position from long-time superintendent Dennis Moore. “It was pretty seamless from Dennis to Andy,” said Peterson. And what LaRocco has done successfully, said Peterson, is to maintain his usual approach-an approach shaped by Moore-to the maintenance of Santa Anita’s dirt course. “The worst thing you can do when something like this happens is make changes without using data to guide you,” Peterson said. “Maybe some of the races should have come off the turf. That’s all I can say. People are making judgements, and this is where data is critical.”
Jim Cassidy said that he and his fellow horsemen are pleased that the track management are “trying to figure out what’s going on,” especially as he sees the condition of the racing surfaces as fundamental to the problem. “All this rain we’ve had, you’d have to blame it mostly on the track.”
The Cassidy-trained Amboseli was recently euthanized after breaking down on the turf in the GIII Astra S. Cassidy said that mare didn’t have any signs of a pre-existing injury or problem. “It was a complete shock to me-she was 100 percent.” Cassidy added that the horsemen he has spoken to, those who have also lost horses in recent months, are equally perplexed. “However, if someone sent one out there with an issue, well, that’s another story.”
According to Arthur, the track can be a factor in any injury. “I think it’s particularly problematic when you have so many off-tracks that require it to be sealed,” he added. “It’s very challenging.” Nevertheless, Arthur stressed the “multi-factorial” nature of any catastrophic injury. “Is there one thing to change to correct the problems we face?” he said. “No, I don’t believe that’s the case.”
An ad hoc committee has been put together comprising Peterson, Hall of Fame retired jockey Alex Solis, now a CHRB commissioner, a Southern California trainer, an active jockey and one member of Santa Anita’s management team. According to Solis, that last slot has been filled by P.J. Campo, executive vice president, Racing Division, for The Stronach Group. The trainer and active jockey slots have yet to be filled, Solis said.
Solis said that the committee was put together to gather together and analyze feedback from a variety of parties, including the horsemen, the jockeys and exercise riders. “That’ll give us a better idea of what’s going on,” he said.
Though retired from race-riding, Solis still exercises horses for Richard Mandella of a morning, and he’s hesitant to pin blame entirely on the track surface. Rather, he sees recent events as a “wake-up call” for all sectors of the industry to assess and perhaps re-assess their role in the issue. “One of the main things is owners putting pressure on their trainers to run when they’re not quite ready,” said Solis. “At the end of the day, this is a team effort.”