By Bill Finley
It's been some four years since Santa Anita suffered through some of the worst times in its long and otherwise glorious history, a prolonged period where horses were breaking down and dying at an alarming rate. Aidan Butler, the chief executive officer at The Stronach Group 1/ST Racing and Gaming, the corporation that owns Santa Anita, is still haunted by that period, so much so that he says he has nightmares about horses breaking down.
“It was horrific,” Butler said. “Can you imagine having bloody helicopters from the news stations flying over the track every time a horse was injured.”
Butler was relatively new to the job at the time, and a fresh perspective was helpful. While some were quick to tell him that the breakdowns were “part of the game,” he represented a management team that refused to accept what was happening and knew that Santa Anita may not survive unless they fixed the problem. So they went to work.
So when the field safely crossed the wire in the Dec. 31 Las Flores S., the last race of the year run on the main track, Butler could have been excused had he popped open a bottle of champagne. The year was over and not a single horse had suffered a fatal musculoskeletal injury during a 2022 dirt race at Santa Anita.
“That's one of those things you hope for but it seems almost impossible,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, the chief veterinary officer for the Stronach Group. “I could not be more thrilled with the work done by everyone involved. And that is what has made all the difference.”
There was also plenty of good news last year at Del Mar. Not a single fatality occurred in a race during either of the 2022 Del Mar meets. There were two fatalities during fall racing, both were non-musculoskeletal and were classified as sudden death. In 2019, the track experienced two deaths during races.
“Since we implemented a series of reforms four years ago, including enhanced training protocols and increased veterinary and track surface monitoring, Del Mar has been one of the safest tracks in the country for horse and rider,” said Del Mar President and COO Josh Rubinstein. “It is great to see similar progress throughout the state, though we know safety and welfare are ongoing and we need to stay diligent.”
At Santa Anita, the numbers in 2019 were ugly. During the meet that began on Dec. 26, 2018 and ran through June 23, 2019, 30 horses died. And that was with Santa Anita shutting down for three weeks to try to get the problem under control. The media was relentless and every breakdown became a major story. Animal rights groups like PETA were putting immense pressure on Santa Anita and some were calling for racing to be shut down in the state.
“At the time it was a very angry place and everybody was pointing fingers at everyone else,” Butler said. “A lot of it was completely unnecessary. Nobody wants to see animals get injured. Its not good for anyone's business. But 2019 gave us the ability to look at things differently because things had really gotten bad. Everybody understood that something had to change. Something had to give. Horsemen, owners, trainers, everyone, understood that business as unusual will not fly anymore. The emphasis on safety had to be the core of the sport because without it the sport could be in jeopardy.”
The question became, what can be done? There will probably always be fatalities in racing, but can steps be taken to reduce the numbers significantly to the point where Santa Anita is no longer the most dangerous track in the country but one of the safest?
“Everything we do must have an emphasis on safety,” Butler said. “That's bandied around a lot and everybody likes to talk about safety and how they want the races to be safe. We had an opportunity in 2019, albeit after an awful situation, to really reset the clock and look at every aspect of how we operate at Santa Anita.”
So what they did was look at virtually every aspect of the sport and try to figure out how they could make things safer. While many factors were in play, the one that seems to have produced the most results was management's decree that horses had to constantly be under the microscope and constantly subjected to veterinary exams. In 2022, 5381 veterinary exams were conducted on 4,673 unique horses.
“If I could pick one thing that had made a difference is the vet-trainer inspection prior to a workout or a race,” said trainer Eoin Harty, the president of California Thoroughbred Trainers. “You're forced to stand there and watch your horse jog up and down the road with your vet. If there is any doubt whatsoever your vet isn't going to sign off on it because it's going to be on his head if something happens. They have to sign a book that says the horse is good and that information is turned into the racing office. All the checks and balances have to be in place.”
Benson said that trainers have learned not to attempt to race or work horses if they are having any problems that could lead to an injury.
“It's been an effort by the veterinarians that we have who work for Santa Anita as well as the private veterinarians,” Benson said. “We look very critically at horses to make sure they are ready to race. And the trainers are doing an excellent job of horsemanship and making good decisions for their horses.”
Harty said that while trainers don't like all aspects of the extra scrutiny they have come to understand that it is necessary.
“Initially, there was some push back,” he said. “But trainers in California realized at the time that we were in a dire situation and unless everybody got on board and started pulling with the same oar potentially we were going to be out of business. There is always resentment when there is a change like that but in general horsemen have come to embrace this. People can adapt very quickly when they have to.”
Management has also been extra cautious when it comes to the racing surface and hired Dennis Moore to be the track superintendent. Concerned that when there is too much moisture in the track problems could arise, Santa Anita will cancel when the weather gets to be a problem. That was the case over the last few days when racing was cancelled on both Saturday and Monday due to heavy rains in the area.
Butler said another factor has been a crackdown on the use of medications used to block or numb pain.
“We're making sure any horse out there isn't on any pain blocking medications,” he said. “With any athlete, if you have anything wrong, medications that block the pain is where larger problems can start.”
The numbers weren't perfect at Santa Anita in 2022. When turf racing, training on the main track, training on the training track and sudden deaths are included, there were 12 deaths at the track in 2022. While that's 12 too many, it represents a major decline from recent years. During the fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019, there were 49 total deaths at Santa Anita.
Maybe there will come a time when 12 deaths seems like a lot, and the Santa Anita team has vowed to keep working to reduce the number to as a close to zero as a racetrack can come. In the meantime and after the situation had hit a rock-bottom level, it's not lost on anyone at Santa Anita how much better things have gotten.
“What happened in 2019 is that it opened up our eyes as to how we must make this sport safer,” Butler said. “Because if we didn't the sport was going to be in jeopardy and be in jeopardy quickly. Luckily for us, Belinda Stronach is not the sort of person to shy away from a battle. We engaged in what we thought was the only way to try to fix things and the numbers we see now speak for themselves. By fixing things the way we did I think we potentially saved the sport in California.”