GGF Fatalities Down Overall, but November Spike Concerns CHRB

Golden Gate Fields | Vassar Photography


Golden Gate Fields twice came within one vote Wednesday of having its upcoming December-June license to conduct racing either curtailed or not granted at all because of California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) concerns over a recent four-horse uptick in equine fatalities.

The meet was eventually approved by a 4-3 vote, with CHRB chairman Gregory Ferraro, DVM, casting the deciding vote and pledging that he will be personally responsible for making sure Golden Gate executives understand that the “or else” consequences of not having a better safety record could mean the suspension of racing or a loss of license.

The polite but tense debate Dec. 15 unfolded against the backdrop of Golden Gate actually having fewer equine fatalities from racing and training so far in 2021 (17) than in 2020 (19).

When Golden Gate's license was up for renewal at this time last year, equine fatalities were a non-issue in the voting.

The difference this year has to do with the recency of some of the deaths. Of the 17 on the year so far, four of them have occurred since Nov. 14. The last previous training death at Golden Gate had been in September; the last previous racing death in May, according to stats on the CHRB website.

The highly charged topic also is reflective of the industry-wide heightened sense of awareness about equine safety.

CHRB vice-chair Oscar Gonzales pre-empted the vote for Golden Gate's full six-month license by suggesting a shorter three-month license would better allow the CHRB to “monitor the situation as closely as we can.”

Gonzales continued: “There' something going on here, and all I'm asking is allow for there to be a watchful eye on what transpires over the next three months, and then they will come back before us and we will then determine whether they're fit to have racing. And if not, we seek other alternatives.”

His argument had echoes of the CHRB's December 2020 meeting, at which Gonzales pushed hard for granting Los Alamitos Race Course only a six-month Quarter Horse license instead of for a full year over concerns that Los Al's management wasn't doing enough to mitigate the 29 equine deaths that occurred at the track in 2020.

Last year, the CHRB initially voted 5-1 to slice Los Al's licensure in half. Los Al's executives at first threatened closure of the track over the way that license was awarded.

But when the board next convened in January 2021, it restored the full license by a 4-3 vote after a more conciliatory Los Al management implemented a more comprehensive equine safety plan. Since those changes have been made, there have been just 11 racing and training deaths at Los Al so far in 2021.

Commissioner Dennis Alfieri didn't buy Gonzales's line of reasoning.

“I think this is totally different than Los Alamitos, quite frankly,” Alfieri said.

In contrast to what had been perceived as a lack of a safety game plan by Los Al, Alfieri said that The Stronach Group (TSG), which owns both Golden Gate and Santa Anita Park in California, has demonstrated “integrity” by continually investing in equine safety measures.

“[TSG is] all over this. This is not just 'business as usual,'” Alfieri said. He likened the recent four-horse spike in deaths to “accidents” as opposed to some glaring safety defect that TSG is not remedying.

Alfieri also pointed out that track operators in the state are well aware their safety records are examined microscopically by the CHRB.

“The reforms that we've made, and the pressure that we've put on these facilities throughout the state, it has their full attention,” Alfieri said.

Alfieri also noted that it's already within the CHRB's power to halt racing by a vote over safety concerns. He advocated for granting the full six-month license to Golden Gate “so things are organized properly,” and with the stipulation that the CHRB will be reassessing the situation every time it meets monthly.

“I don't understand what three months does. I say let's monitor it every 30 days, and then come back immediately if we see that there's a pattern of serious problems,” Alfieri said.

Ferraro pointed out that he, CHRB executive director Scott Chaney, and equine medical director Jeff Blea already visited Golden Gate last week to meet with trainers and track executives over the fatalities.

“So it's not like we're not doing anything,” Ferraro said. “We can always stop racing. We have the ability to do that. So unless we see some improvement, we can come back and…make a motion to stop racing.”

Both Gonzales and commissioner Wendy Mitchell expressed doubts that the board could actually come up with enough votes to halt racing if it had to, because the severity of the safety issues will always be subjective for each commissioner.

“We're not doing anything to address these deaths that we are seeing,” Mitchell said. “I'm concerned that we're kind of moving past it even though we see something happening.

“Commissioner Alfieri may be absolutely right that if there is a big problem we'll have the vote,” Mitchell continued. “But why are we going to take the risk at this point ahead of something even more catastrophic happening instead of just giving them a shorter license?”

Gonzales's motion on granting Golden Gate just a three-month license failed, 4-3. He, Mitchell and commissioner Brenda Washington Davis voted for it. Commissioners Alex Solis, Damascus Castellanos, Alfieri and Ferraro voted against it.

When Alfieri moved the question for a full six-month meet, the vote carried 4-3 with the same alignment of commissioners.

Upon casting the deciding vote, Ferraro said, “I'm sorry. I take into account Mr. Gonzales's concerns and Ms. Mitchell's concerns. [But] I think you can count on Mr. Chaney and myself and Dr. Blea to make an extra effort to turn things around at Golden Gate.”

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