Santa Anita and the Thoroughbred Owners of California reached an agreement Saturday that will allow the track to reopen racing March 29. Santa Anita has been closed since March 5 after a dramatic rise in horse deaths, which is at 22 since Dec. 26.
While speculation was that racing could resume as soon as Friday, there was always the issue of getting the deal approved by the California Horse Racing Board. There was a CHRB meeting originally scheduled Thursday, but these medication changes were not listed on the docket and did not meet a 10-day public notification period.
Chuck Winner, CHRB chairman, late Saturday decided to move the meeting a week so as to meet all the legal rules regarding public notice.
Initially, all race-day Lasix was to be prohibited, under a proposal by the Stronach Group, which owns and runs Santa Anita. But the compromise position is that it will be applied only to 2018 foals, or horses that won’t race until next year. Horses currently on Lasix will be allowed to continue to receive the medication on race day but in a maximum dosage of 5cc, instead of the 10cc currently allowed.
“[Race-day Lasix] far and away was the biggest topic of conversation from top to finish,” said Greg Avioli, TOC president and CEO. “But [this compromise] was unanimously approved by the TOC board. And we had a call of 250 TOC members and no one objected to it.”
The TOC originally told membership on a conference call that racing would resume this Friday. But the final deal had not been signed off on by Belinda Stronach, president and chairman of the Stronach Group.
“Whatever rules that can be in place legally, will be in place, but some [that are not yet legal] will not,” Avioli said. However, it became clear that Stronach wanted all the new rules in place before racing would resume.
“This is a complete revision of the current medication policy for thoroughbred racing,” Stronach said in a statement late Saturday. “TSG is committed to the principles of safe horse racing for both equine and human athletes and to making California the best in the world.”
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has assigned investigators to work with the California Horse Racing Board to look into the sudden rise in horses deaths at Santa Anita since the track started its meeting Dec. 26.
The initial plan did not mention Stronach properties Gulfstream Park in South Florida and Laurel Park in Maryland, only Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields.
However, on Saturday she said, “TSG will begin consultation with our stakesholders in other states to put these standards into effect in those jurisdictions.”
Other changes were announced, such as those that affect claiming races at Santa Anita. It is eliminating races below $10,000 claiming and also maiden claiming for $16,000 and $20,000. There are no changes of a similar kind at Golden Gate Fields. Those horses could leave Santa Anita for Golden Gate.
Another change agreed upon by the trainers is that Butazolidin, used commonly to reduce pain and inflammation, can now only be given 48 hours before a race instead of 24 hours.
Many of California’s medication rules exceed those internationally. However, almost all countries outside of the U.S. do not allow race-day medication, such as Lasix. Last year, only 3.6% of horses in the U.S. did not start with Lasix.
“Our members want to get back to racing and we thought this was a compromise that was worth endorsing,” said Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers. “Nobody involved in these negotiations got everything they wanted. But we’re pleased reasonable people got together and reached an agreement that we can endorse going forward.”
On the call with TOC members, Avioli said that there were 140 horses ready to leave California this weekend if racing did not soon resume in Southern California.
“I believe that once we realized collectively what was at risk for not doing a deal, we made a deal,” Avioli said. “It was pretty clear the track was not reopening if there wasn’t [a deal] and people were ready to leave the state.”
Another rule that will go in effect when the track reopens is not allowing jockeys the use of the whip unless for safety reasons. Currently a jockey can use the whip three times in succession before having to allow the horse a chance to respond.