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Maryland racing industry wrestles with scrutiny on horse deaths in wake of Santa Anita crisis

Two words have haunted American thoroughbred racing for the past six months: Santa Anita.

For the longest time, they simply connoted the most important racing venue on the talent-rich West Coast. Now, they’re shorthand for an epidemic of equine fatalities that has forced an entire industry to reckon with its future.

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As horse after horse died at Santa Anita Park this winter and spring — 30 by the time the California track wrapped its six-month meet June 23 — aftershocks reverberated all the way to the opposite coast.

In Maryland, racing officials and horsemen are proud of the work they’ve done to improve safety but cognizant of the tenuous moment their industry faces. Maryland has not experienced the surge in breakdowns that plagued Southern California or the corresponding calls to abolish its racing industry. But the issue is very much on the minds of horsemen and regulators, who realize they could be at the center of a similar public firestorm with just a few months of bad luck.

“It has to be,” said Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, which regulates the state industry. “I think we’re in a good spot, but it’s a very difficult thing to say where you are in relation to other states. … We’re engaging in constant discussion with the horsemen, the tracks and other states, looking at what we do and what they do with an eye on, ‘How do we make it better?’ It’s a constant move forward.”

In the past month, leaders of the state industry have met with horsemen, veterinarians and track officials to lay out a series of proposed policy changes designed to sharpen drug regulation and keep unsound horses from entering the starting gate. Even so, Maryland racing has attracted scrutiny from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which says the state is not moving quickly enough to embrace reforms proposed by The Stronach Group, which owns and operates Santa Anita in addition to the two major Maryland tracks at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

After 5-year-old mare Follow the Petals broke down while leading a June 16 race at Laurel Park, a statement warned: “PETA is watching Maryland racing very closely and it’s imperative that Maryland breeders and trainers embrace the rules that Santa Anita Park put in place to protect horses. We hear they may resist, but they do so at their own peril.”

“The moment really is right now to get rid of all of the cruelty,” PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo said in a recent interview. “All of the issues facing racing could so easily be fixed. They just have to commit to doing it. … We will begin our outreach to Maryland officials very soon. I don’ t think the focus will ever go off of California, but it will shift to Maryland and other states.”

Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group, and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young wait for the trophy presentation after the144th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday May 18.
Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group, and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young wait for the trophy presentation after the144th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday May 18. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Guillermo said PETA is not, as many horsemen perceive, trying to eradicate American racing. But she said the sport will face death by public opinion if it does not shed its dependence on medications, rid itself of rule-breaking trainers and eliminate the in-race whipping of horses.

“We have seen an unusual public reaction to these deaths at Santa Anita,” she said. “So this is the moment for racing to say, ‘All right, we’ve been messing around with these issues for decades. Let’s take a look at everything we can do to make this better and do it.’ ”

There’s no clear pattern to the rate of thoroughbred fatalities in Maryland. Last year, 1.91 horses died per 1,000 starts on the state’s tracks, slightly higher than the national average of 1.68, according to a comprehensive injury database maintained by The Jockey Club (a 125-year-old organization devoted to maintaining and improving thoroughbred breeding and racing). But Maryland tracks saw fewer than average fatalities in 2017 and 2015. Those positive years followed an alarming spike in 2013, when the state saw 2.9 breakdowns per 1,000 starts, 53% more than the national average.

When Follow the Petals died of an apparent heart attack June 16, she was at minimum the 12th horse to die on Maryland tracks this year, according to the Maryland Racing Commission. Nine horses died during races and two during training between Jan. 1 and the close of the Pimlico meet in late May. The death of 3-year-old filly Congrats Gal occurred on Black-Eyed Susan Day, the second-most attended annual racing card in Maryland.

That breakdown helped prompt a meeting of more than 50 horsemen and track officials at Laurel Park to discuss potential policy changes.

“There is a heightened awareness throughout the industry regarding the safety and welfare of our horses,” said Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Now, that’s not something new in Maryland. It’s not something new in the Mid-Atlantic. But the Santa Anita situation has painted the entire industry with a broad brush.”

Hopkins said he foresees Maryland implementing an array of modest changes that would promote greater safety. These might include doubling prerace medication bans from 24 to 48 hours, bolstering out-of-competition drug testing and emphasizing efforts to identify at-risk horses before they’re allowed to enter the starting gate. The state’s tracks have already added a full-time safety steward.

Maryland has long tried to adopt new policies in communion with other states around the Mid-Atlantic. That approach has resulted in uniform regional medication rules and regional responses to crises such as a spike in horse deaths at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack earlier this decade. Foreman said Mid-Atlantic officials will gather again in September to discuss implementing many of the medication reforms that have been proposed in the wake of the Santa Anita deaths.

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Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion, who’s based at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, said he’s haunted almost daily by the breakdowns his horses have experienced over the years. But he added the sport must do more to clean up its rules and convey the concern horsemen feel for their animals.

“We need to do better, let’s face it,” Motion said. “It’s about saving our industry. There’s so much good about it, but we don’t even do the little things well at the moment. When people ask me what I do on an airplane, I want to be proud to tell them I’m a horse trainer.”

Trainer Graham Motion with Kentucky Derby contender Irish War Cry after a morning workout at Fair Hill Training Center.
Trainer Graham Motion with Kentucky Derby contender Irish War Cry after a morning workout at Fair Hill Training Center. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The series of deaths in Southern California has already prompted promises of reform around the American industry.

In March, as deaths accumulated at Santa Anita, The Stronach Group announced stricter limitations on Lasix, the anti-bleeding drug used by a vast majority of American trainers, and on the use of whips by jockeys. The company’s chairman and president, Belinda Stronach, called it a “watershed moment” and said “we will wait no longer for the industry to come together as one to institute these changes.”

Two weeks before the May 4 Kentucky Derby, The Stronach Group joined with a coalition of major track operators to announce impending Lasix bans for 2-year-old horses and all horses running in stakes races.

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These promises drew praise from animal-rights activists and some within the industry but prompted a backlash from horsemen, including those in Maryland, who argued there was no clear link between race-day medication and the surge of deaths in California.

Foreman called The Stronach Group’s proposed reforms a “misdirection” designed to appease the sport’s loudest critics.

Stronach officials initially said they would work to extend their reforms from Santa Anita to all of the company’s tracks. Guillermo said they’ve told PETA the same thing. But Hopkins said the track operator has made no move to bring the proposals before the Maryland Racing Commission.

“The commission is not going to take a look at this stuff until it’s presented to us,” he said.

A Stronach Group spokeswoman declined to comment on the company’s plans. But Belinda Stronach said in a statement: “The health and safety of horses and riders is at the core of what we do. We will continue to work with horsemen and regulators in each jurisdiction in which we operate to make sure that we are doing everything we can to further this objective.”

A widespread Lasix ban would generate the fiercest pushback, because many horsemen and veterinarians believe the anti-bleeding drug is an important and safe tool for treating racehorses.

“For us, it’s a welfare issue, because it’s in the best interest of the horse,” Foreman said. “Why would you deprive the horse of a safe and effective medication?”

Motion said he believes in the therapeutic benefits of using Lasix on race days but wonders if the sport would be better off without it because of the stigma attached to the drug.

“I just think the whole concept of medication, the general public doesn’t have an appetite for athletes or horses running on it,” he said. “I’m afraid I don’t think we can have our cake and eat it, even though I think Lasix is beneficial to the animal.”

Meanwhile, Stronach officials and other industry leaders are lobbying for passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act, federal legislation that would establish uniform drug testing standards enforced by the U.S. Anti-Doping Industry.

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