Fatality rate has halved at Santa Anita but it is not enough

Marcus Armytage
The Telegraph

American racing, particularly in California, has never been under greater pressure than now after a spate of horse fatalities led to the early closure of Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet in March.

In terms of animal welfare not even the Grand National, before fundamental changes were made to Aintree in 2013, or the Cheltenham Festival, to where much of that scrutiny has now shifted, will have been under the microscope quite like the 36th Breeders’ Cup this weekend.

Santa Anita is not the worst track in America for fatalities but, in liberal California where 625,000 signatures could force a ballot on a ban and where the governor does not appear well disposed towards the sport, it has become the focus of unrelenting attention.

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It has been the subject of unflattering leading articles in the New York Times and Washington Post and, even though a raft of measures brought in since March has improved the situation markedly, each new fatality is headline news. It is not only the hills around Los Angeles which have caught fire.

Roughly 1,800 horses are trained at Santa Anita with 200 galloping on any given day. The 30 fatalities in the first three months of the year may have been the result of a perfect storm of conditions, not least an abnormally wet winter, which did nothing to improve a dirt track that can be brutal at the best of times. But many of those conditions, it seems, were preventable; such as the suggestion that trainers were being leaned on to boost field sizes with patched-up horses.

And, of course, at the heart of the problem is American racing’s oldest chestnut; running horses on medication, particularly the painkiller Bute, which can mask a minor injury that could potentially become catastrophic under racing conditions.

<span>Campaigners protest about the high number of fatalities at Santa Anita</span> <span>Credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP </span>
Campaigners protest about the high number of fatalities at Santa Anita Credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP

The problem is compounded because each state has its own racing commission, each with a different set of rules. There is no overall co-ordination; no one body, like the British Horseracing Authority, to formulate a plan, implement changes or speak up for the sport. But if positive can ever come from negative, then this should be seen as a huge opportunity to reform, not just in one state but from west to east.

The measures brought in by Dr Dionne Benson, the vet appointed by track owners the Stronach Group to put welfare at the top of the agenda and work towards meeting the medication and welfare standards of the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities, include longer withdrawal periods for Bute, a reduction in the amount of Lasix used and a ban on use in two-year-olds from next year.

The whip has also been banned in morning work and its use for anything other than safety or steering in a race incurs a $500 (£389) fine for jockeys. All horses have to pass a vet before working.

The fatality rate has already halved – 4.4 per 1,000 starts down to 2.0 – even so this is a figure Dr Benson concedes is still “nothing to be proud of”, but she insists it has to be done “step-by-step”. 

Ironically, it was Californian racing which, in a bid to head off welfare concerns 11 years ago, replaced several dirt tracks, including Santa Anita’s, with a synthetic surface. Although the surface was not harm-free, the injuries tended to be soft tissue, requiring a year out, rather than catastrophic fractures.

It was not perfect – in the Californian heat there were problems with the wax binding the sand – but after two years and with indirect pressure from the stallion masters of Kentucky, who could see the value of their dirt stallions dropping 80 per cent overnight if the rest of the country followed suit, the synthetic surface was ripped up. The fatality rate more than doubled almost overnight.

“Here,” says Dr Benson who did not rule out a return to a synthetic surface, “the new measures have been well accepted. Everyone understands how important it is to race medication free. As we go on and east from here Lasix is more of a challenge. We own tracks in Florida and Maryland and the discussion has begun, but Lasix will be a sticking point.

“In Europe they treat horses that bleed differently. Part of the reason we did not want to do a full stop on Lasix is that we have to learn to train without it.

“One thing is very obvious; the people in this company want to do this the right way. Horses are the priority. To get it right you have to start with horse welfare. The goal is to find a way to make it safer, welfare focused and because of that it will be successful. It’s been a good start, it’s getting better and will continue to get better.”

Simon Callaghan, the British Santa Anita-based trainer, also believes that good can come from bad. “It’s been well received and everyone is working collectively to put horse welfare at the top of the agenda,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to get racing together. It’s not just Santa Anita – it would be foolish if tracks across America didn’t start implementing the improvements.”

If US racing does not grasp this nettle, the sport may be safe in places like Kentucky, but to lose California would hole the industry below the waterline.

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