The death of a horse after a race Thursday at Laurel Park has added to concerns about a sport that has been under scrutiny across the country for a staggering number of equine fatalities.
The horse, Aikenetta, a 5-year-old mare, died after finishing last in a seven-horse race. She had been in the lead at the half-mile mark, according to reported race results, before slipping to third in the stretch.
Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, said the horse was taken to the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania, a veterinary facility, for a necropsy to determine her cause of death. He said the process likely would take a week to 10 days.
“We’re assuming it’s a heart issue,” Hopkins said, because Aikenetta had no broken bones.
Hopkins said it’s standard protocol for veterinarians to check all the horses before races, listening to their hearts and lungs, palpating their legs and flexing their joints.
Aikenetta is at least the 13th horse to die on a Maryland track this year. On June 16, another 5-year-old mare, Follow the Petals, died after initially leading her race at Laurel. And Congrats Gal, a 3-year-old filly, died after pulling up and finishing last in a race on Black-Eyed Susan Day in May.
The deaths come in the wake of heightened concerns about equine safety, particularly after more than 30 fatalities in less than a year’s time at Santa Anita Park in Southern California. Why so many horses have died there remains unclear, although everything from weather and track conditions to more frequent racing schedules and use of performance enhancing drugs have been suggested.
The deaths prompted Santa Anita’s owners, The Stronach Group, which also owns Laurel and Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, to ban the use of drugs and whips on racing days at the California park.
The Stronach Group previously said it wanted to extend such a ban to all its tracks, but Hopkins said such a proposal has not been brought to the commission.
On Friday, The Stronach Group said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun that it remains committed to safety.
“The Stronach Group is fully committed to implementing standards consistent with, or better than, those of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities at all of our facilities," according to the statement, attributed to Belinda Stronach, the chairman and president.
"We appreciate that each jurisdiction in which we operate is uniquely governed but our goal is to work with our industry partners in each of those jurisdictions to bring about critical reforms and improved horse and rider safety standards,” the group said. “We will accept nothing less.”
The bans have drawn pushback from many horse trainers and owners.
Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, dismissed the Stronach ban on race day drugs as an attempt to “look like reformers.”
The only drug allowed on race days is Lasix, a commonly injected diuretic used to prevent bleeding, and there is no evidence that it contributes to higher fatalities. Foreman did say the industry is looking at the subject of whipping.
He said a coalition of industry stakeholders in the area have been working to develop strategies to reduce equine deaths. A full “mortality review” of deaths such as Aikenetta’s, looking at the pre-race exam, blood tests and any pre-existing conditions, will help in finding ways to improve horse safety.
“We will try to reconstruct what happened,” Foreman said. “Did we miss something?”
Animal rights groups have long sought reforms if not outright bans of horse racing. The Washington-based anti-cruelty group Animal Wellness Action said Aikenetta’s death demonstrates the need for greater regulation of the sport.
The group is among those that have been lobbying for the Horseracing Integrity Act, which would create a national anti-doping authority for race horses similar to that for Olympic athletes. It has more than 200 sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives and could receive a hearing next year, said Marty Irby, executive director of the animal wellness group. He called The Stronach Group’s drug ban “a really good start."
“We’d like to see it expanded across the country,” Irby said.
“As the death toll rises, the public view of American horse racing is swiftly deteriorating," he said. “Our modern-day society will no longer tolerate the deaths of these iconic American equines for entertainment.”