Horse racing deaths in California have been cut in half in two years and plummeted to the lowest levels since 1990 as a result of reforms implemented after dozens of deaths at Santa Anita racetrack in 2019.
The California Horse Racing Board’s annual report on the state of the sport, released this month, shows 72 horses died in California during the 2020-21 season that ended in June. That’s down from 144 deaths in the troubled 2018-19 season and a far cry from the 278 deaths in 2011-12, the worst year on record in the past decade. At the same time, the number of horses racing has dropped by only 7% in that two-year period.
gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Greg Ferraro, the former director of UC Davis’ center for equine health, to the horse racing board, the state’s regulator for the industry, in late 2019 with a mandate to reduce the injury rates. Since then, the board has implemented more than 40 new regulations, while racetracks also have voluntarily imposed their own internal restrictions.
“It woke everybody up, including the governor,” Ferraro said of the deaths at iconic Santa Anita in Arcadia. “We’ve concentrated on the health and safety of the horses above everything else.”
The reforms in the past two years included strict limitations on the use of whips by jockey, a prohibition on most medications before races, installation of new imaging technologies to catch injuries sooner, more opportunities for veterinarians and stewards to sideline horses and a mandatory requirement for trainers to participate in the postmortem review that occurs whenever a horse dies in California.
Ferraro credited the state’s racetracks and trainers for their cooperation. Horse training is often guided by traditions that have been passed down for hundreds of years, Ferraro said.
“People tend to train horses one way because that’s the way they were trained by their father, or the person before them,” Ferraro said. “We’re beginning to see there are better ways to train horses.”
The work isn’t over yet either, Ferraro said. More regulations are in the pipeline to further reduce those figures.
Early data suggests the declines are continuing in the 2021-22 season. There have been 43 racing-related deaths statewide from July 1 to Feb. 26, compared to 48 during the same period last year, according to data provided in CHRB reports.
Harsh spotlight in 2019
The deaths of 23 horses in less than three months at Santa Anita in winter 2019 cast a harsh national spotlight on equine fatalities and a shadow over the future of horse racing in the state. Santa Anita suspended racing for weeks. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office investigated the deaths, but determined there was “insufficient evidence to prove criminal animal cruelty or other unlawful conduct under California law.”
Public outcry became so great that insiders feared horse racing’s days in California were numbered. But in the years since, the turnaround has been dramatic, both locally and across California.
Santa Anita had 24 and 16 deaths during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, respectively. That’s down from 49 deaths in 2018-19 and from a high of 71 in 2011-12, the track’s worst year from 1997 to 2021.
Santa Anita’s general manager, Nate Newby, could not be reached for comment. Santa Anita, in the CHRB’s annual report, credited “industry-leading protocols for additional monitoring, early intervention and improved diagnostics, along with the CHRB regulations overhauling medication rules” with providing a “statistically safe venue for thousands of horses that raced during the year .” The report notes that horses train on Santa Anita’s racetracks “more than 370,000 times” annually.
Santa Anita ‘leading the industry’
“Santa Anita has spent the better part of the past two years leading the industry through challenging times,” Newby said in a statement in the CHRB report. “Through the continued cooperation with our industry stakeholders, we have been able to keep our horses, horsemen, employees and fans safe during a global pandemic while remaining open nearly year-round and continuing to grow our business.”
Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of PETA, has spent 10 years pushing for reforms in the industry. Again and again, promises of change was supplanted by others’ desires to protect the status quo, she said.
“I think we got away from that in California in 2019 and 2020,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done — there should be zero deaths — but it was nevertheless amazing, because for the first time, the message got through.”
Guillermo credited the tracks and the CHRB, both its current and previous administration, with the positive changes.
Still, “they have a ways to go,” she said. “I think most people would agree that if even one horse is dying, it’s too many. So that number needs to go down further.”
Guillermo said while the state has implemented a number of PETA’s recommendations from 2019, others, such as a shift to safer, synthetic tracks, have found opposition. More support is needed for the technologies that can detect injuries in horses, including one that would use artificial intelligence to reduce the amount of time — and the need for anesthetics — when scanning horses, she said.
She wants the CHRB to expand the restrictions on medications to two weeks before a race and to be given more authority to go after problematic trainers, she said.
“If a trainer could be suspended immediately upon the death of a horse, pending a full investigation, I think it would be very motivating for trainers to make sure they’re not racing horses that shouldn’t be running,” Guillermo said.
Ban on Lasix key?
Marty Irby, the director of Animal Wellness Action in Washington, DC, said he attributes the successes in California and Santa Anita, in particular, to the efforts of track owners’ to ensure consistent racing surfaces and to the generally increased awareness — and caution — among those tasked with caring for horses. Perhaps the biggest change came from the Stronach Group’s internal decision to ban the diuretic furosemide, commonly referred to as Lasix, at its racetracks, including Santa Anita, he said.
Though the science is contested by some in the industry, multiple studies have found that furosemide can negatively impact a horse’s calcium balances.
“It dehydrates the horse and it causes the horse to shed anywhere from 40 to 60 pounds of water weight before they run,” Irby said. “Over time, Lasix causes the horse’s bones to become more brittle, more susceptible to fractures.”
National law takes effect in July
The federal Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020, which is set to take effect in July, would ban all medications, including Lasix, within 48 hours of a race. The law, which found strong support following the controversy at Santa Anita, also would impose anti-doping testing, though with just a few months left before its rollout, who exactly will conduct that testing is still uncertain. The US Anti-Doping Agency announced in December that it was unable to reach an agreement with the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority that would “have given us a reasonable chance to put in place a credible and effective program.”
Both Guillermo and Irby said other states are still struggling with surges in horse deaths. Currently, there is no uniformity in regulations between states. Many horses travel between different venues around the country and an injury at one might not present itself until the horse is in another state, they said.
If HISA is properly implemented, California likely will see even more declines in deaths as other states are forced to comply with stricter standards.
“We would no longer have this patchwork of different rules for different states,” Irby said. “You’re looking at a much better situation for the horse. You’re looking at fewer breakdowns.”