Santa Anita is inching toward its projected March 29 opening after having closed for live racing on March 5 following a dramatic increase in the number of horse fatalities. Since Dec. 26, 22 horses have died either in racing or training. What happened at Santa Anita has been a mystery that remains unsolved. When the track reopens, the stakes are very high and all eyes will be on horse safety.
The Los Angeles Times gathered a roundtable of three well-known experts with more than a century of knowledge working in the horse racing industry to try and dig down into what went wrong at Santa Anita and where things go from here.
On the panel are Alan Balch, a former Santa Anita executive who has also worked with other horse breeds, and is executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers; Joe Harper, president and chief executive officer at Del Mar, who has been running the track since 1978; and Ryan Carpenter, one of the top equine surgeons in the country and who works on the backstretch of Santa Anita.
Answers were edited for clarity and brevity.
Is this the biggest crisis in California racing history?
Harper: I would say yes. I know Del Mar has ended up on the nightly news a couple of times with a similar problem. But this one seemed to get a lot of attention. Maybe the situations were a little different but I do think this is at the top of the list.
Balch: I have to agree. The things that I can remember like this were when Santa Anita was shut down by the labor unions. We have had some integrity things from time to time, like when we wouldn’t let the favorite for the Santa Anita Derby run because of cloudy ownership. But this, because it involves the horses, and people are questioning us about our care of the horses makes it far and away the most serious thing I can remember.
Are horses any different than those of the past that might contribute to more breakdowns?
Balch: I believe today’s horse is more precocious, more brilliant at 2-years-old and 3 than they used to be, but they’re also more fragile. Even saying that, it can’t explain the spike we’ve had here in injuries the last couple months.
The media has in general put a lot of emphasis on the 3-year-olds. Some horsemen have too. … But, Santa Anita used to have a whole series of races for 4-year-olds the following year. So, the auction market then was much more based on horses that would stay sound and race into their maturity. Now there is a collision of market economics, the breeders’ market and the sales market. What people want is a horse that’s going to be brilliant at 2, and win the Triple Crown.
Carpenter: The horses that I’ve seen in the last decade have been very consistent. We’re very much looking for a horse that performs very well in a 2-year-old in training environment. So early quick speed, those fractions of a second going a couple furlongs, could be the difference in a sellable horse or not. There are some people who think that maybe we need to get away from that pushing to shave off fractions of a second.
What do you think has caused this sudden rash of deaths at Santa Anita?
Harper: It’s always hard to find that smoking gun. It’s probably a lot of things. Certainly, you look at the weather and the way the track was, and even though [track consultant] Mick Peterson gave it high marks, you still had a track that was getting rained on and was sealed and unsealed. That’s got to take a toll.
You add to that certain pressures that were put on the horsemen at the beginning of this meet to race. All of us in racing, if you look at the bottom line, it’s all about quantity, not quality, and the more horses you get in a race, the more money you’re going to make. And the pressure was part of the problem. Bad luck. Bad karma, also played into it.
Balch: We may not know exactly why, but we know what it’s not. It’s not anything to do with Lasix. Dr. [Rick] Arthur has made it very clear that there is no relationship between Lasix and catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries (CMI). The real proof is Golden Gate Fields went through the same winter, maybe worse, with the same medication rules, the same racing rules, the same everything with a relatively lower purse structure and have five [deaths]. We’re not saying that’s great, but it’s five versus 22. What’s the difference? It’s not medication, it’s not the rules. The principal difference is their racetrack, which happens to be an all-weather synthetic. They’ve had a much safer time of it and that points my attention to the race track.
Carpenter: Injuries occur where there are inconsistencies in surfaces. Dirt is a very dynamic material. It does not stay the same. In an environment where you have to pack it down and seal it, where it takes on moisture, that is very difficult to create a one-mile surface that is consistent. The race track at Santa Anita has been sealed about 20 times, which sets things up for an inconsistent surface and was probably a contributing factor on the injuries we were seeing.
Was this breakdown problem discovered too late, waiting until it was at a crisis point?
Balch: My personal opinion is that there were many of us who saw the problem early and called it to management’s attention. … Hindsight teaches that all of us should have been much more aggressive, demanding, and objective, much earlier.
Harper: I will say that in our first meeting with Santa Anita there was a recognition from them of that problem. Hopefully, we’ve all learned some lessons from this tragedy.
How close to extinction did horse racing come over this latest crisis?
Harper: Every time you go through one of these you wonder how long can this can go on before someone puts in a bill that would eliminate racing or takes some drastic steps. My concern during this whole thing is if Santa Anita would continue to race. I was at that first meeting with Belinda Stronach [president and chairman of the Stronach Group, which owns and runs Santa Anita] and she was very upset. She was under a great deal of pressure from some of her friends and the general public. I think what they put into place was her demands and I understand them. A lot of that stuff is good and I support it, not all of it, but most of it. It’s in the back of our minds that something like this could lead to the cancellation of racing everywhere. If we just sit around and do nothing, it’s going to happen. I think it’s a crisis.
Balch: We all feel Joe’s fear of the jeopardy because we are horse people. We’re very, very concerned about it. This is a huge industry out here, not just racing. The latest study has a $13.3 billion economic impact [in California]. Huge number of employees. The backstretch community that takes care of the horses under the supervision of trainers. We have an obligation not just to the horses but all the people connected to the horses to do the right thing. It’s our obligation to make sure the sport prospers.
Does this Lasix rule make sense?
Carpenter: I’m in complete agreement that there is no association between Lasix and CMI. It is a therapeutic medication that is used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging (EIPH), which is a recognized disease and syndrome in the racing population. There is a lot of research that supports its use. To ignore science and research, I question if that’s a responsible move on our industry’s part.
How does the sport come back from this crisis?
Balch: It’s an interdependent sport and everybody has to work together and that seems to be somewhat absent in the last month or so. We are all in this together and the way to make progress is to have … all the people discussing these things together at the same time and in the same place. And that’s been, shall we say, disappointing, when individual groups of people or organizations pretty much make announcements. The way to get out of this is to get back to this interdependent relationship.
Carpenter: There needs to be teamwork among all parties and stakeholders moving forward. When medication issues come up, we have to look to the medical experts. There are different organizations that have put their heart and soul into putting the horse first, answering the questions and making appropriate recommendations. The amount of medication reform that’s gone on in the last five to 10 years has been remarkable. And that’s not because we decided to make some decisions based on a whim. If we can work together, if we can talk to each other, hone in on each person’s expertise then we will be farther ahead than if we try and do it on our own.