By Daniel Ross
In an emergency California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) teleconference Friday in the wake of a series of equine fatalities at Los Alamitos, the board voted to put the track on a 10-day probation, while live racing continues, to devise a plan to address various horse welfare issues raised during the meeting.
At the end of those 10 days, the board will reconvene to review the plan. At that point, if the proposed plan doesn’t pass muster, the board has the option of suspending the track’s racing license.
“I agree that there needs to be a serious review of policies and procedures at Los Alamitos,” said CHRB chairman Greg Ferraro. “Not necessarily as a fault of track’s management, but I think there is a culture there amongst the practicing veterinarians and trainers that are pushing the envelope when it comes to the safety of these horses.”
The sole dissenting vote to the motion came from CHRB board member Wendy Mitchell, who preferred an immediate suspension of Los Alamitos’s license while a review occurred.
At the start of the meeting, CHRB executive director Scott Chaney explained his decision to file a petition to hold the emergency meeting, arguing that there has been an increase in equine fatalities during the first six months of this year when compared to the same period the year prior, along with a recent spike.
Since the start of January this year, there have been 14 racing-related fatalities and five training fatalities, Chaney said. “In that same period last year, there were four training fatalities as opposed to five racing fatalities,” he said, pointing out that the numbers constitute a near three-fold increase in racing deaths. There have also been nine fatalities at the track since May 26 alone.
Attorney Drew Couto, representing Los Alamitos, urged the board to step back and take a look at the broader picture, pointing out that that the race-day fatality rate at Los Alamitos decreased the most recent fiscal year when compared to the year prior. “That reflected a decrease that has been occurring at Los Alamitos since 2008,” said Couto.
Couto noted that some of the fatalities at Los Alamitos this year have been unrelated to racing and training, with 10 due to “gastrointestinal” problems. He also said that the recent cluster in equine fatalities at Los Alamitos have mirrored equine fatality clusters that have occurred at Santa Anita this year.
“Clusters occur, and they are perceived by Los Alamitos as exceedingly unfortunate and of great concern,” he said. “Every time they occur, they are examined by track management, and particularly the track crew to determine if there are any issues related to the track.”
According to CHRB equine medical director, Rick Arthur, various officials–including respected track manager, Dennis Moore–have voiced no concerns with the track surface. “To be clear, I do not believe that Los Alamitos is an unsafe track,” he said
Arthur also said that he disagreed with Chaney’s decision to file the petition for the emergency meeting, arguing that while the recent cluster of fatalities is concerning, there are broader issues that factor into any equine fatality.
“What I do see from the preliminary necropsy findings, and what I have reviewed on these cases so far are the same problems we see everywhere in racing: questionable training and horse management and questionable veterinary practices,” he said.
Arthur stressed the need for a systematic continuing education program in California, and urged the board to pass additional regulations concerning intra-articular corticosteroid injections.
“I would like to see restrictions on multiple intra-articular injections, and particularly multiple intra-articular injections of cortisone, which we see more commonly at Los Alamitos than other tracks,” he said.
Veterinarian Becky Fitzgerald, who conducts all pre-race examinations at Los Alamitos, explained that the program she conducts is comparable to the one at Santa Anita. “We’re crossing our T’s there and doing the best we can as far as that’s concerned,” she said.
Ferraro asked if additional examining veterinarians would make the system more efficient.
Fitzgerald responded that being Los Alamitos’s sole veterinarian works to her advantage, giving her a thorough history and understand of each horse at the track. “I know these horses like the back of my hand,” she said, emphasizing how many Los Alamitos-based trainers voice frustration with her strict ethos when it comes to pre-race exams. “I scratch plenty of horses at the end of the day.”
The Long Beach-located racetrack is primarily associated with Quarter Horse racing, though many Thoroughbred trainers operate a barn at the facility. During the COVID-19-related suspension of racing at other California racetracks, Los Alamitos was given the green-light to remain operational and posted additional Thoroughbred races during its regular evening Quarter Horse cards.
A brief daytime Thoroughbred meet recently concluded without an equine fatality
The emergency meeting–the petition for which Chaney filed early Thursday morning–is the first time the CHRB has exercised its authority afforded through SB 469, a state bill passed last year giving the board the ability to provide just a day’s public notice for a meeting to discuss the possible suspension of a racing license. Prior to that, the CHRB had to provide 10 days public notice.
The bill was passed in the aftermath of the Santa Anita welfare crisis that erupted during the first half of last year. At the height of the crisis, the board was under intense public pressure to immediately suspend live racing at the track–a move the board was unable to make, if it wanted, due to the former regulatory constraints.