How horse racing went horribly wrong at Santa Anita

Thirty horses have died at the storied California racetrack in six months

Horses head for the finish line during the final meeting of the winter/spring season at Santa Anita Park in California on June 23rd. Photograph:  Mario Tama/Getty Images

Horses head for the finish line during the final meeting of the winter/spring season at Santa Anita Park in California on June 23rd. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

 

On the morning of March 29th, Santa Anita Park was reopening for racing for the first time in three weeks after the mystifying deaths of nearly two dozen horses. Satellite trucks, national news reporters and animal rights activists converged for what had become a macabre death watch. But California regulators were watching a live surveillance feed of a trainer’s assistant carrying a bucket into the stall of a horse named Tick Tock. Moments after the assistant left, a white foam was visible on the horse’s lips, often a tell-tale sign of performance-enhancing drugs.

Investigators later found syringes in the bucket, along with a fatigue-fighting agent known in racing parlance as a milkshake, according to hearing transcripts from the state’s Horse Racing Board.

The news that investigators believed Tick Tock had received such a concoction – before the first race on the first day of the track’s return to racing, no less – is indicative of the dysfunction that has enveloped Santa Anita the past six months, a period when horses had to be euthanised after suffering fractures at an alarming rate. Thirty horses have suffered this fate since December 26th at Santa Anita, a storied racetrack that became a flash point this year for activists who want to ban the sport altogether.

Racetracks in the United States have a particular problem with horses dying. Nearly 10 horses a week on average died at American racetracks in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. That figure is anywhere from 2½ to 5 times greater than the fatality rate in Europe and Asia, where rules against performance-enhancing drugs are enforced more stringently. Even so, what transpired at Santa Anita, where a horse was put down more than once a week, on average, stands out.

Despite advances in veterinary care, rehabilitating horses from fractures is rare, because the animals cannot be immobilised. Finding a direct cause for the demise of a single horse, much less 30 of them, is nearly impossible. But interviews with state regulators and more than two dozen people who work at Santa Anita revealed an array of factors that put horses’ lives at risk.

Top priority

Many of those people lay the blame on a push by the Canada-based Stronach Group, which has owned the track for two decades, to maximise profits. Company officials, including Belinda Stronach, the chairwoman and president, insisted that safety had always been the top priority, though she has never hidden her desire to make Santa Anita as profitable as it can be – profitable enough to resist the temptation to sell the track to developers.

The push to boost revenues required a relentless racing schedule, the people said, despite unusually rainy and cold weather in Southern California that might have made the track less safe. Of the 30 deaths, 11 occurred during training, when horses were presumably not going full speed, suggesting problems with the track’s surface.

And to increase betting, track managers held more races with bigger fields, which put intense pressure on trainers to race horses that may not have had enough rest or been in the proper condition, owners and trainers said. The track tolerated trainers who had been cited for using performance-affecting drugs, records showed. Experts have long considered drugs a leading cause of horse deaths. Not only do they dull pain and mask injuries, letting at-risk horses run when they should not, but they make horses unnaturally stronger and faster, increasing stress on their limbs.

“It was the perfect storm of terrible weather, a dearth of horses – many of them who shouldn’t have been running here,” said Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. “There was a big push to fill races, and some people haven’t been as cautious as they should have, on both sides.”

State regulators are investigating the rash of deaths, as is the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The drive to add more races came from Santa Anita’s chief operating officer, Tim Ritvo. Along with other executives, Ritvo threatened to limit – or eliminate – trainers’ stall spaces if they did not enter horses frequently enough, according to owners and trainers at Santa Anita. One of the executives, PJ Campo, had been hired by the Stronach Group after leaving the New York Racing Association. Under his watch, 21 horses died at association tracks during a similar period in 2012.

That spike prompted a government-appointed task force to issue a critical report on how Campo, and other New York officials, seemed to prioritise filling races over ensuring that horses were fit. In recent weeks, the Stronach Group let Campo go. He did not respond to messages seeking comment. Belinda Stronach acknowledged that Ritvo had been brought on to increase Santa Anita’s profits. But she said that “‘more is better’ is not a company philosophy,” and she rejected the idea that her executive team forced trainers to run unfit horses.

Chairwoman and president of The Stronach Group Belinda Stronach. Photograph: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for The Stronach Group
Chairwoman and president of The Stronach Group Belinda Stronach. Photograph: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for The Stronach Group

“No one has said that you can’t be here if you don’t run,” she said.

Santa Anita, known as the Great Race Place, has always been one of the most glamorous racetracks. It was the home to Seabiscuit, and Hollywood stars have flocked to its postcard-perfect setting beneath the San Gabriel Mountains, 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

That location makes its land exceptionally valuable – estimates range close to a half-billion dollars – and attractive to developers.

The Stronach Group is family-owned. The family patriarch, Frank Stronach, is a Canadian auto-parts billionaire who has invested much of his fortune in breeding and owning thoroughbreds and acquiring showpiece racetracks, even as interest in the sport has declined. He bought Santa Anita for $126 million in 1998.

There is a continuing financial battle within the company. Frank Stronach, 86, is suing his daughter, Belinda, for nearly $400 million in Canada, alleging that she has enriched herself and locked him out of his empire. Belinda Stronach, 53, has countersued, asserting that her father has spent excessively, though she said she does not want to take the easy way out and sell the land to developers.

“I’m prepared to reinvest, make less money and put the foundation in a place that we can be proud of,” she said in an interview. “I’m not trying to get rid of it.”

Air of expectation

On March 2nd, Eskenforadrink, a four-year-old thoroughbred, arrived on the Santa Anita racetrack to an air of expectation. She was favoured to win the third race of the day, one that came with a $22,000 purse. She was slow out of the starting gate, but she took the lead on the first turn of an oval muddied by rain. Less than a minute into the one-mile race, Eskenforadrink lurched and began to stagger, her head bobbing unnaturally as she struggled to stand. Her jockey wrenched the reins to keep her from falling.

“You’re seeing it, and you don’t think it’s going to happen to you,” said the horse’s trainer, Jorge Gutierrez, 53, who watched the race from a monitor. Eskenforadrink had sustained a fracture to her right front fetlock. She was put down, becoming the 20th horse to die at Santa Anita Park since the previous December. Her death was particularly discouraging. Just days earlier, a specialist had examined the track and declared it “100 per cent ready.”

In 2010, Santa Anita became one of several prominent tracks to abandon synthetic racetracks made of sand, rubber and silica after a short-lived experiment. The fatality rates had been far lower, but maintaining the tracks was vexing and expensive.

Many didn’t like them. Trainers complained the surface was causing an uptick in soft-tissue injuries. Some punters found the newfangled racetracks difficult to make winning bets on. Owners and breeders said the tracks favoured turf horses. After Santa Anita returned to its traditional mix of sand and dirt, catastrophic injury rates were not out of line with those elsewhere. This season, though, the company courted danger by consistently running races, often regardless of conditions, during one of Southern California’s wettest and coldest winters in decades.

With accidents mounting, Mick Peterson, a track surface expert from the University of Kentucky, used ground-penetrating radar to scrutinise the soil’s moisture and consistency. He found no irregularities. Peterson was on a layover at the Atlanta airport heading home when he got the call about Eskenforadrink.

Punters at betting windows on the final day of the winter/spring horse racing season at Santa Anita Park on June 23. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Punters at betting windows on the final day of the winter/spring horse racing season at Santa Anita Park on June 23. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

“You start going through everything you’ve done to make sure you didn’t miss anything,” he said of the call. Peterson said problems might have been caused both by the excessive rain that flooded the region earlier this year and maintenance decisions made while the soil was drying out.

The situation called for Dennis Moore, an expert on racing surfaces with more than four decades of experience. He is the track superintendent at both the Del Mar and Los Alamitos courses. Until December, he also worked at Santa Anita. Moore, 69, was a renowned track man. He often was criticised for being overly cautious when he would close a track in anticipation of weather that might damage the uniformity of its surface, which is essential for horse safety. Unswayed by complaints or pleas, he stood his ground.

Moore retired from Santa Anita in December, in part because he sensed the Stronach Group was encroaching on the standards he had set for the track and was worried about potential budget cuts, according to a former Stronach Group executive, who was granted anonymity because he was not authorised to speak about the company, and another person who was close with Moore.

“I left Santa Anita to semi-retire and slow down,” Moore said in an email to The New York Times, declining to elaborate. Industry veterans said maintenance of the track slipped after he left. Santa Anita ran 111 races on its main track when the surface was listed as either “muddy” “sloppy” or “off” compared with only 18 during the same period the previous winter, according to industry records.

Sixty-two of those races were run when the track was sealed, meaning heavy sleds had compressed the surface to prevent moisture from seeping into the lower levels, creating a harder surface. That can mean difficult footing for fragile 1,100-pound horses with ankles as slim as Coke bottles.

Tom Knust, a former Santa Anita racing secretary who is now a jockey’s agent, said it had probably been a mistake to run so many races during the rainy season. “The year before, when the weather was good, we ran one day with five races on the turf,” Knust said.

Not complicated

Three days after Eskenforadrink’s fatal race, Santa Anita announced that Moore would return as a track consultant.

When they arrived at Santa Anita, Campo and Ritvo brought a formula that had proved successful at Gulfstream Park, the highly profitable track the Stronach Group owns in South Florida. The formula is not complicated: more races for punters, including more claiming races for lower-level horses, and aggressive lobbying of trainers to get their horses out of the barn and into the entry box.

In February, a trainer, Shelbe Ruis, tweeted that she was harassed by one of the track’s newly appointed vice presidents after she withdrew her horse from a race, citing unsafe conditions.

“They don’t care about horse safety at Santa Anita,” she wrote, though she later deleted the tweet. Trainers, especially those with small stables of five to 15 horses, said management had heightened pressure to race their horses by threatening to either reduce their number of stalls or evict them from the barn areas altogether.

“They were putting pressure on trainers that was not appropriate,” said Tim Cohen who, with his father, Jed, owns racehorses under the name Rancho Temescal. “It was a top-down, take-it-or-leave-it proposition.”

Animal rights activists protest outside Santa Anita Park on the final day of the season. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Animal rights activists protest outside Santa Anita Park on the final day of the season. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

In an interview, Belinda Stronach said that her understanding of the situation from her conversations with Ritvo was that trainers were asked about their racing decisions when it was appropriate.

“There may be circumstances where a horse may have trained or done a workout six times and now and then that trainer will be asked, ‘Why are you working out as opposed to running?’” she said.

On a recent Monday, after one of the rare weekends when Santa Anita conducted three days of racing without a horse fatality, Stronach sat in her empty racetrack and talked about the aggressive, wide-ranging drug and safety protocols she had demanded.

A review of the medication violations over the past 10 years for the trainers of the 30 horses that died at Santa Anita showed that many had been cited with unusual frequency. Amid growing complaints in March, the Stronach Group made changes to its drug and veterinary policies that would match international standards.

Stronach said the rules would not only save horses but change the public perception that the sport is gruesome and deadly. She was not, however, willing to accept sole responsibility for the fatalities.

Unsavoury trainers

“I’d like to see the necropsies come out,” she said, referring to the equine autopsy reports that are now in the hands of investigators for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. “It is certainly my philosophy and that of the company to put horse welfare at the centre.”

Stronach said that unsavoury trainers and owners contributed to the deaths.

A special panel of veterinarians and racing officials rejected 38 horses as unfit to run over the final six days of racing here, according to the California Horse Racing Board. The panel was created this month at the direction of Governor Gavin Newsom and will be in effect at Los Alamitos beginning on Saturday, when that meeting opens.

The Stronach Group banned the trainer involved with the “milkshaking” of Tick Tock, who survived the season, as well as another trainer who tried to enter a horse to race with a broken ankle.

Stronach also said that she would consider switching back to a synthetic track. In 2009, the last time horses at Santa Anita competed for a full year on a synthetic track, the fatality rate was .9 per 1,000 starts, compared with 2.27 per 1,000 starts in 2017.

“The numbers don’t lie,” Stronach said. – New York Times

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