Early in February, the California Horse Racing Board released its annual report for the fiscal year 2017-2018, and one particular piece of data stood out: the number of equine fatalities at all California racetracks and training centers had declined markedly compared to the year prior. For an industry that is constantly under threat from animal-welfare issues, the 33 percent drop was a cause for celebration.
Now, with the indefinite closing of Santa Anita Park for racing in the wake of 21 deaths at the track since the start of the meet on Dec. 26, the celebration has quickly turned to consternation.
The suspension of racing, which will almost certainly result in the cancellation of one of Santa Anita’s most prominent racing dates, the Santa Anita Handicap card on Saturday, underscores the fragility of the sport in the modern era, when animal-welfare issues are a matter of concern for ever-widening swaths of the population and the industry itself has put in place numerous initiatives designed to address injuries. As California racing and regulatory officials conduct a deep dive into the possible factors that could be behind the spate of fatalities, concern over the fallout from the deaths has spread throughout the racing industry nationwide.
“The best thing they did so far was just to stop,” said Alan Foreman, a longtime official for horsemen’s groups in the Mid-Atlantic who was part of a task force that conducted an exhaustive examination of a spate of fatalities at Aqueduct racetrack in New York in 2011-12. “You have to get a handle on this. You have to take a break and step back and do whatever you can do.”
Officials for The Stronach Group, the owner of Santa Anita Park, have said that the suspension will allow the company to bring back a former consultant, Dennis Moore, to conduct another examination of the track’s racing surfaces, just one week after Mick Peterson, a racing-surface expert at the University of Kentucky, performed his own analysis, also while the track had temporarily suspended racing and training. That first evaluation, which included the use of ground-penetrating radar, did not turn up any glaring inconsistencies or abnormalities.
California officials are focusing on the racing surfaces because of an especially rainy winter. But it’s also true that racing surfaces are an oft-driven scapegoat for fatalities, even though safety experts caution that injuries are multi-factorial and that there is rarely a single cause for them. And looming over the spate is the uncomfortable reality faced by the racing industry each and every day of its existence: horses will die, and when those deaths occur in close proximity to each other, commentators far and wide will believe that there must be common factors, rather than data just clustering together.
Yet another reason that the focus has landed on the racing surface is because California has one of the best reputations in the industry on health and welfare protocols, as far as monitoring the horse population for risk factors. The commission has had a necropsy program in place for decades, and some of the best equine health and welfare research facilities are located in the state. The commission was also the first to hire a full-time equine medical director, Rick Arthur, and other states have modeled many of their own safety protocols on California.
“I can say with all confidence that they are investing all their resources to examine this,” said Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “They know more about equine injuries than probably any other jurisdiction.”
Santa Anita, specifically, has been accredited by the industry’s Safety and Integrity Alliance since 2008, shortly after the program was launched. Steve Koch, the alliance’s director, called the track one of the alliance’s “best practice operations,” meaning some of its protocols are recommended to other tracks that may be falling short on one or more of the alliance’s measures.
“Santa Anita remains one of our most forward-thinking industry partners,” Koch said.
According to the CHRB report examining the 2017-18 fiscal year, which ended in June of last year, a total of 138 horses, representing all breeds, died of racing or training injuries at all California tracks and training centers, a sharp drop from a total of 206 in fiscal year 2016-17 and a steep decline as well from the previous years. The state total peaked in the past decade at 278 in 2011-12. Santa Anita had 44 fatalities in total during the 2017-18 fiscal year, down from 64 in the year prior.
Other racetracks have faced their own spates of equine fatalities in the past decade, and with each succeeding instance, the racing industry as a whole has become more and more anxious, a reflection of the efforts many in the racing industry have put forth to address the problem. While it is not unprecedented for a racetrack to announce a suspension of racing after a fatality – many racetracks have canceled the remainders of their cards on a bad-weather day after a horse dies – the indefinite suspension at Santa Anita is the first of its kind in recent memory.
Del Mar had its own spare of fatal injuries in 2016. Saratoga Race Course, operated by the New York Racing Association, had a very bad run for several weeks in 2017. Neither track canceled racing for an indefinite period.
Nor did NYRA’s Aqueduct in 2011-12, when 21 horses died over the span of 3 ½ months. That cluster led to the formation of a state-mandated task force to examine the circumstances surrounding the deaths. The task force’s 100-page report, containing 39 specific recommendations, was not released until six months later.
Scott Palmer was an equine surgeon at the time he was appointed to the commission, along with Foreman, Scollay, and the retired Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey. Now the equine medical director of the New York Gaming Commission, Palmer said on Wednesday that the recommendations identified in that report have been adopted widely throughout the racing industry.
“A lot has changed since then,” said Palmer. “We’ve become incredibly sensitized to these issues. The whole industry has recognized that minimizing injuries to horses is a huge thing we have to do. There’s this awareness now that fatalities of horses represent an existential threat to horse racing.”
Foreman, Scollay, and Palmer all agreed that the most important aspect of the Aqueduct task force was its independence. The task force members were given access to all of New York’s industry constituents, they said, and they were allowed to promise anonymity and immunity during their interviews in order to explore all avenues of consideration.
“You have to look behind closed doors,” Foreman said. “You have to look at everything and anything that could be a contributing factor.”
“The most important thing was that the task force was an independent party,” said Palmer. “It was not an internal investigation, couldn’t be influenced by what or who we were examining. We had the freedom to do the investigation without any constraints.”
Palmer said the task force’s recommendations led to a complete overhaul in how regulators and racetracks in New York work to prevent injuries. Data on injuries is now analyzed daily, Palmer said, and veterinary officials are constantly testing out new protocols to see what makes an impact and what doesn’t. Racetrack fatalities have declined in New York nearly every year since the report’s recommendations have been implemented, even though bad runs, such as the cluster in 2017 at Saratoga, invariably crop up.
“If I see a problem, if I see a change in the data, then right away I am talking to people,” said Palmer. “You have to have a high index of suspicion.”
But the three members of the task force also cautioned that an examination of the California deaths may not yield easy answers. Thoroughbred horses are fragile animals. And the sheer number of factors that are in play when horses put high stress loads on relatively thin limbs can confound even the smartest, hardest-working data analysts.
“I say this all the time, even if it’s not a very satisfying answer,” said Scollay. “There’s no silver bullet. If it was just one cause, one factor, we would have identified and fixed it years ago.”
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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