By Bill Finley
Dr. Dionne Benson, the Chief Veterinary Officer for The Stronach Group, is running through a laundry list of reforms her new employer has made at Santa Anita and the reasons why she believes they have gone a long way toward fixing the problems that led to 23 fatalities over a three-month period.
Then she pauses, and there is a loud knock. On wood.
Benson has had many roles within the equine veterinary community and is among the most well respected individuals in her field. So she knows that racing is a fickle sport. A track can go months without a fatality and then be overrun with them. But as each day passes and Santa Anita further distances itself from a situation that was so perilous many felt the end result would be the banning of racing in California, Benson can at least sleep easier at night.
There were many bad days since Santa Anita opened Dec. 26, but none worse than March 31 when a horse named Arms Runner (Overdriven) broke down in the GIII San Simeon and had to be put down. It was the 23rd fatality since the meet opened. And while Santa Anita had already been under fire from animal rights activists, politicians and the media, Arms Runner’s death appeared to be a tipping point.
Senator Dianne Feinstein called for the suspension of Thoroughbred horse racing at Santa Anita until an investigation had determined the cause of the 23 equine fatalities. There was legitimate concern that PETA would lead a drive to get an initiative on the ballot to ban racing in the state, not a tall order when only 620,000 signatures are needed in a state that has 39.6 million residents, many of them animal lovers.
Santa Anita management was at a crossroads, and if it took a wrong turn it was quite possible that racing was done in California.
The track had already ceased racing for 21 days earlier in March in an attempt to try to figure out what, if anything, was wrong with the racing surface. This time, it resumed racing on the next scheduled card after the Arms Runner incident. According to sources, management feared that if it shut down again, its critics and enemies would find a way to keep it closed forever. But the TSG team also knew it could not afford another breakdown, at least not any time soon.
Racing resumed April 4. According to statistics provided by Santa Anita, from the day Arms Runner broke down through May 12, there have been 1,428 starters in races, 6,973 workouts and 84,960 horses that have galloped in the mornings.
And the number of fatalities? Zero.
“Everyone is doing a really good job at putting the horse first,” Benson said. “Every day, we continue to work as hard as we can to improve the safety of the horses racing here. I don’t think we’ll ever be finished when it comes to the job of improving safety for the race horse.”
While there’s little doubt that the measures Santa Anita has installed to improve equine safety have been a factor, so, too has the weather. The Santa Anita area endured an almost unprecedented amount of rain while the worst of the problems were occurring. Without much of anything in the way of a break in the weather, the track maintenance crew was dealing with highly unusual conditions and was sealing the track after every rain storm. Subsequently, TSG COO Tim Ritvo has said that was a mistake and that if there is ever again another run of weather like the one that occurred last winter management will likely cease racing until the track is suitable for racing.
“At least right now, it’s quiet,” said trainer Bob Baffert.”There have been no serious injuries and after what we went through that’s a tremendous relief. A lot of it was the rain. I think when it was drying it out, that’s when it was the worst. A lot of tracks can be sealed, but when they’re drying out you have to be careful. That’s why I trained around it. We haven’t had much in the way of rain in a long time. Everybody has learned from this. All eyes were upon us and we needed to make it work and it looks like we did. The track is in good condition right now.”
The hiring of Benson was one of several steps TSG took to do anything it could think of to create a safer environment for the horse. The former Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer for the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium in Lexington, she was hired April 23.
But the work had begun well before that.
On March 14, TSG Chairman and President Belinda Stronach issued an open letter to the industry in which she announced there would be “a complete revision of the current medication policy to improve the safety of our equine and human athletes and to raise the integrity of our sport.”
Some of the reforms, like the banning of whipping and Lasix have not gone through because they must first clear hurdles at the California Horse Racing Board, but others went into effect immediately as so called “house rules.”
The most significant changes were that any horse given corticosteroids cannot run or work for 14 days, the time limit on giving a horse bute or banamine before it starts or works was changed from 48 hours to 24 and the allowed level of Lasix a horse could race on was cut in half, from 10 cc to 5 cc.
In conjunction with the rule changes on medication, veterinarians employed by the state and the racetrack were told to be much more vigilant. A trainer had to apply to work a horse and the vets were told to take no chances when watching horses coming onto the track for a work and also when warming up before a race and going into the gate. If they suspected anything were wrong with a horse, it would not be allowed to have a workout, and if showing any signs of distress in the afternoon would be ordered scratched.
Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the CHRB, said that since the use of banamine, bute and corticosteroids had been curbed, it has made it much easier for a veterinarian to tell if a horse was having soundness problems.
“We certainly are not as lenient as we used to be,” Arthur said. “Most horses have little aches and pains here and there . They’re professional athletes that train hard. But there are some issues we just aren’t as tolerant with as we used to be, particularly in terms of fetlock abnormalities. Without the ability to use non-steroidal anti inflammatories within 48 hours of a work and without the ability to inject horses with corticosteroids we are able to identify these problems much more effectively.”
“I think that just like anything there are trainers who understand , appreciate and want the input (when banning a horse from working),” Benson said.. “And then there are trainers who feel it may be unfair, just like on race day when you scratch a horse. You’re not doing it to make anyone angry, you’re doing it because it’s in the best interest of the horse. The vast majority of trainers understand that. Speaking from my experience as a regulatory vet in Kentucky, as trainers learn what your criteria are, they adjust. You don’t have an increased scratch rate for very long, if long at all. What really happens is trainers understand what you are looking for and they’re not going to bring over horses you’re not going to approve.”
Many people said they believed that the changes would decimate field size at Santa Anita, which would lead to a significant loss in handle. According to Arthur, there are now about 200 fewer horses stabled in Southern California than before the new rules were established. He speculated that some horses left because their trainers wanted to race in states with more liberal medication policies. However, there has been only a slight dip in field size. According to the CHRB, the average field size, including both turf and dirt races was 7.46 from Dec. 26 through March 31. From April 1 through May 12 the number had dipped only to 7.20.
(Starting April 12, Santa Anita began racing three days a week instead of four, a likely reason why field size has not declined more than it has).
The Stronach Group has done more than curb the use of bute, banamanine, Lasix and corticosteroids, and is not done. Other measures already adopted are complete transparency when it comes to veterinary records and an increase in out-of-competition testing. It is still pushing for a complete ban of Lasix and the whip. Benson believes that nothing has been more beneficial than an investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.
Arthur long ago said that the majority of horses that break down were suffering from pre-existing conditions. The problem was that those were problems that trainers could not necessarily detect and neither could the equipment available to their veterinarians. TSG purchased a PET scan. PET scans are common in human medicine to diagnose conditions including cancer, brain damage, heart and bone problems. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the first PET scan was performed on a horse. According to thehorse.com, the PET scan was able to “detect early indications of lesions in areas such as the navicular bone, subchondral bone (located just under the cartilage surface within a joint), flexor tendons, suspensory ligament, and lamina. Several of these lesions, particularly on ligament attachments and subchondral bone, weren’t visible using the other imaging modalities.”
“Look at the technology The Stronach Group has purchased,” Benson said. “With the PET scan, hopefully, we will be able to diagnose things we never could before by being able to find problems we couldn’t find before. We can intervene in these situations and if we find a problem horses will not be able to go to the track. It’s not as if anyone was sending out horses visibly lame or horses with easily identifiable problems. It really was a situation where we couldn’t know. Now we have the technology where we can know. These are opportunities for us to really improve our diagnosis and care for these horses because you can find things that you never could have found before.”
Presumably, once things quiet down at Santa Anita, TSG will institute similar reforms at its other tracks.
Arthur said the trainers largely have been cooperative and have accepted the new rules, but as is this case when there are major changes made in any walk of life, people have varying opinions. What’s right? What’s wrong? What’s working? What’s not working?
Trainer Mark Glatt said he had mixed feelings about the what TSG has done with its new rules. Like Baffert, he argues that the overwhelming amount of rain at the start of the meet was a huge problem and that needs to be factored in, along with the changes made by TSG, when it comes to the lack of fatalities since Arms Runner.
“Nobody likes change, that’s human nature,” he said. “But once they made it clearer what the new rules were, it wasn’t hard to adapt. You can’t argue ague with the results, but I still say we can attribute this more to the weather getting better and the track not being sealed. Let’s not forget about that. I think our biggest problem was the highly unusual amount of rain that we had. They broke all kinds of records.
“But one thing I have noticed is that they put in these changes so that the vets would have a clearer view of the conditions of the horses so far as soundness. To the best of my knowledge, we have not seen a crazy spike in late scratches at the gate, so these horses must not be presenting themselves any differently to the state veterinarians. That was the whole intent, so that these horse could be better evaluated come race day. Again, that makes you think how much the weather must have been a factor.”
But, as Glatt said, “You can’t argue with results.” Jim Cassidy is the second vice president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, and he said he believed that the changes installed at Santa Anita have had to have made a major difference in the fatality rate.
“The track itself is checking every horse that comes on the track in the morning,” he said. “Veterinarians are at every gap, watching horse come on. If they see something they don’t like they make them go back to the barn and then they go check on them. That probably has been as big a factor as anything. Most of the trainers realize the significance of the problem we had and realize that we can’t be playing games anymore. In the beginning there was grumbling. Lots of people objected to it. Now, we’re getting more troubles from the exercise riders than the trainers. They’re cussing out the vets, saying their horses are fine. For the most part, everyone is going along with the program. It’s a good thing. It’s as great a situation as I have seen when it comes to safety.”
Other racetracks have picked up on some of Santa Anita’s reforms. A coalition consisting of Churchill Downs Inc., the New York Racing Association, all of the Stronach Group tracks, Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Remington Park, Los Alamitos Racecourse (Thoroughbred meets), Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs has agreed to ban Lasix for 2 year-olds beginning in 2020 and for all horses running in stakes races beginning in 2021.
While Lasix has been a controversial topic in racing for some 30 years, Cassidy said he believed these tracks are not focusing on the real issues, the reforms Santa Anita has made that seem to be working.
“This Lasix thing is a joke,” he said. “Everyone poops on Lasix but everyone knows that Lasix doesn’t cause breakdowns. I think every major racing state should look at what Santa Anita has done right and those are the changes they should latch on to.”
Like Benson, Arthur said he was thrilled that racing has been so safe of late at Santa Anita.
“It has been a pleasant surprise,” he said. “I knew we could make a difference. I didn’t know we could make this big of a difference.”
Yet, this is no time to declare total victory. Some breakdowns are inevitable and unavoidable. Have the protestors, the animal rights activists and the media moved on to other areas or will they be back in force when and if that 24th horse has to be euthanized? The problem is that zero fatalities is an unrealistic goal.
“I don’t know if I would call it being back to normal just yet,” Glatt said. “I hope people have respect for trainers and understand that no trainer wants to be the guy who has a horse break down. Unfortunately, it’s part of the sport and it’s going to happen. You can’t be too careful. Let’s have several more months down the road with no breakdowns, get back to four days of racing a week and then maybe we can say we are out of the woods. But it’s very nice not to have had a catastrophic breakdown for so long. No breakdowns. That’s the goal of everyone involved. All of us, trainers, the vets, managements, we will keep striving create the safest racing environment possible.”