By Dan Ross
One day after the bombshell announcement that the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York had filed indictments against 27 Thoroughbred veterinarians and trainers for an array of drug offenses, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) released its long-awaited report on the 23 equine catastrophic injuries that marred Santa Anita during the first few months of its 2018-2019 winter-spring meet.
The resulting report provides not only an extremely detailed dive into the multi-factorial nature of the causes behind these catastrophic injuries, but a lengthy series of recommendations in areas concerning track surface maintenance, track management, training practices, private and regulatory veterinary practices, horse safety and welfare, along with the CHRB itself.
It needs to be noted that many of these recommendations have already been instituted or are in the process of being.
Among the findings of the report:
– The investigation uncovered no use of illegal medications or medical procedures, and no evidence of an animal welfare violation.
– Twenty-one of the 22 horses which suffered catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries had pre-existing pathology at the site of the breakdown.
– The vast majority of catastrophically injured horses had proximal sesamoid bone fractures.
– Eleven horses had received intra-articular cortico-steroid injections, five within 60 days of fatal injury, and two within 14 days of injury.
– The majority of horses which suffered catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries were instituted a high-intensity exercise regime which decreased a month before the fatal injury.
– Nearly 40% of the fatalities occurred on surfaces “affected” by wet weather. Furthermore, horses may have been “compromised” by repeated training and racing on off-tracks-surface conditions that can contribute to repetitive stress injuries.
– In terms of high-intensity workouts, the horse population at Santa Anita last winter had exercise profiles that put them at “higher risk for injury.”
– Many of the horsemen involved “did not display good working knowledge of anatomy or grasp the significance of pre-existing lesions.” Furthermore, the horsemen involved were largely poor record-keepers.
– Seven complaints will be filed alleging violations for failing to turn in daily reports, and three complaints will be filed alleging violations of a rule concerning trainer duties and/or training without a proper license.
The TDN has compiled a variety of responses to this report. Some of these answers came from a CHRB media-conference call Tuesday.
Dr. Greg Ferraro, CHRB chairman
Regarding the possibility that the CHRB might once again mandate synthetic surfaces in California: “I don't think you're going to see us mandate anything in the near future. Certainly, synthetic tracks are under consideration, and being investigated, but the question is: you want to switch to synthetic? What synthetic? The last experiment we had, that didn't work out too well. And so, until you come up with a surface that you're pretty confident on, that it's going to work for us, I don't see the investment going forward.”
Rick Arthur, CHRB equine medical director
Regarding high intensity workouts: “We've known for a number of years that the number of works per start in California is much higher than it is in the rest of the country. And, you will actually see, before the end of the week, when they're posted on the [CHRB] website, an exercise history of all these horses.”
“We also know that they were trained harder in terms of more high-speed furlongs than they were even eight years ago when [Dr. Sue Stover] last conducted a study similar to what was done here. In that sense, the indication is that horses were over-trained or over-raced.”
Tim Grande, official veterinarian
Regarding the early diagnosis of pre-existing injuries: “In general, a lot of the [subtle] pathology that is pre-existing on these horses stays asymptomatic–even if you could find it with diagnostic imaging, the trainers and the attending vet's might not necessarily flag the horse for scrutiny. In that respect, the other issue, correlation of diagnostic techniques–for example, radiographs–don't quite match the severity on a necropsy finding, so, that's another blind spot so to speak.”
Eoin Harty, Santa Anita-based trainer
Regarding the finding in report that certain horsemen did not show a good working knowledge of anatomy or understanding of pre-existing lesions: “I think that most trainers would acknowledge that some of these horses do have an underlying pathology, but, short of X-raying every joint and limb everyday before racing and training, how would you know about these pre-existing conditions, and would they even show-up on X-rays, these micro-fractures?
“I find it hard to believe that any trainer I know of knowing a horse had a pre-existing condition, or knowing they had a lesion somewhere, would send them out to train, let alone race. The only real tool a horseman has is a daily knowledge of the horse. You look for heat, and inflammation, and the horse's gait, and use a general gut feeling. If there's no heat, no filling, and the horse is moving well, how would you know if there is a pre-existing condition?”
“The fact that you don't specifically understand the skeletal system doesn't necessarily mean you're going to do something stupid.”
Jeff Blea, a racetrack practitioner and past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners
Regarding a recommendation that private veterinarians should seek to increase physical examinations prior to workouts, entries, and joint injections: “We're already doing that. We have been doing that–we've been doing that ever since I've been in practice.”
Regarding the recommendation that the CHRB consider rules requiring diagnostic imagine prior to repeated joint injections: “I don't think the regulatory bodies have any business in that-that's a practice of ethical veterinary medicine.”
“That [also] leaves the impression that horses' joints are being injected willy-nilly, and that's not the case.”
Madeline Auerbach, owner-breeder and former CHRB member
“I don't find any of [the report] surprising. The detail is incredible. The work done is amazing. But to me, the only value that the work has is if we find a way to make sure the people responsible for the horses avail themselves to the information and take it seriously. But there is some hope that they do.”
Statement from The Stronach Group (joined by the California Thoroughbred Trainers)
“The California Thoroughbred racing industry and The Stronach Group have, over the last year, implemented unprecedented and effective reforms. This effort, led by Governor Newsom and the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), is well documented in the recent report issued by the CHRB. We look forward to a full review of that report and to working with the Governor, the CHRB and the California legislature to continue the progress made to date.
“There has been a 64% reduction in catastrophic injuries at Santa Anita Park this year, and we have not had a single fatality during racing on our main track for the entirety of this season. While the first number represents a positive development, the second number is always the goal. We welcome the opportunity to work together with our industry partners to implement the suggested reforms and to make 2020 a year we can all be proud of.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein
“The California Horse Racing Board's investigation into the horse deaths at Santa Anita Park makes it clear that more transparency is desperately needed in the sport.
“I agree with the report's findings that the use of dangerous drugs, like Lasix, should be banned. Allowing the use of drugs to mask a horse's illness and push them beyond their physical limits too often results in a catastrophic injury requiring the horse to be euthanized. If a horse requires drugs to run, then it's too sick to race.
“This report comes on the heels of 27 people being indicted by the Southern District of New York for an illegal doping scheme that included the trainer of Maximum Security, the 2019 Kentucky Derby's initial winner, who was later disqualified.
“If the last year has taught us anything, it's that we can no longer ignore the problems associated with horse racing. We must take action, including passing the Horseracing Integrity Act, if we're going to protect these magnificent creatures and their riders.”