A Conundrum at Santa Anita

March 14, 2019

Twenty-one fatal breakdowns since December 26th at one meet at Santa Anita is a lot by any measure. I’d venture to say that number is too high for it to be coincidental, remaining cognizant that breakdowns are inherent to the sport. Track management has set forth a new set of protocols they claim are to maximize safety of the horses and riders. Whether that works remains to be seen at the very expense of the human and equine athletes these new rules, referred to as the “new normal” are designed to protect. Considering Princess Lili B broke down this morning bringing the count to 22, following a half mile work would indicate the “new normal” might not be working.

Let’s look at what we know before we speculate:

We know there have been a rash of breakdowns at the track since the meet began. We know filling races is difficult, especially at Santa Anita. We know Ritvo was brought in to address that and other issues facing the track. We know they frown upon scratches, and try to hustle horses in to races to get them to fill. This is common practice at most tracks, and not exclusive to Santa Anita or Southern California. We know the track was tested, re-tested, and possibly tested again without our knowing. It has been reported and stated by Tim that the track is fine, and everything is in order with it. It has been reported that the jockeys feel the track is fine. We know Santa Anita was belted with more rain recently than what they are used to. The track had been operating with a new track superintendent since the meet began. The former track superintendent was brought back to consult on the track condition. The track is fine is all they are saying. We know mainstream media picked up the story, and ran with it. We know animal rights groups including PETA were protesting at the track and planning additional protests. We know some major races were re-arranged during the ever important Triple Crown season including the San Felipe, a Kentucky Derby prep race and the Santa Anita Handicap, a major race for older horses and a marquee event in the sport.

We know even more. We know there are new protocols being implemented governing both workouts and entries. We know Santa Anita is built near a fault line, and the ground beneath it is subject to potential movement and shifting. We know Blood-Horse Southern California reporter Jeremy Balan, normally very active and engaging on social media, particularly Twitter, has gone almost radio silent but for the re-tweeting of Blood-Horse articles. Initially he was on top of this situation and actively covering it. We know Tim took exception at the mainstream media coverage of this conundrum, and also called out industry media for fueling that fire. We know some years back Aqueduct had a rash of breakdowns following increased purses for claiming horses in particular. We know that some barns have used thyroid medications as a routine treatment on all or at the least some of their horses who did not have thyroid problems. Thyroid medications in high doses can potentially cause bone weakening and bone loss. I do not know what it can do if administered to a patient who does not require it for a thyroid problem. We do not know what or if any illegal medications are being used on our equine athletes. We know horses receive more therapeutic medications today than ever before, and some argue this weakens the breed.

We know quite a bit.

We do not know even more.

The first thing we don’t know is how, if at all, any of the above ties in. We don’t know what “all” the commonalities in the deceased horses were, or if they were contributory. We know after the rash of 21, we had a 22nd, that the industry and Santa Anita could not afford almost as soon as training started up again. We know training continued following this most recent fatality of Princess Lili B. We know these “new normal” protocols include providing veterinary records for all horses working out, racing, or who have been claimed. We know horses will be checked before works and races. We know Tim stated that all the horses who broke down were checked, and that there were “some” common denominators. We know some of the fatalities had raced over sealed racetracks. We know a lot of barns are anxious to get back to racing and working horses. We know at least most barns do not know what caused this flurry of incidents, again remaining cognizant livelihoods are at stake.

The last time I recall a horse breaking down in both front legs was Eight Belles following her second place finish to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. It is not something you forget, and I remember Robbie Albarado who rode in the race stating it was the worst thing he had ever seen in racing. This is the one thing our industry and Santa Anita did not need happening as training resumed. The spotlight, and all the negative stigmas that surround our sport, both fair and unfair, have been amplified. I don’t see how we have anyone but those who call the shots in this game we love to blame. Simply saying we love our horses has ceased to be enough. Giving out some carrots, apples and peppermints doesn’t equate to love. All of us who play this game, and support this game, and derive our livelihoods from this game need to step up. We need to demand better. For all our athletes, equine and human. Everybody knows what the issues are from drugs, to cheating, to price gouging, to aftercare, to slaughter, to selective enforcement, to super trainers, to stewards, and this is just the beginning. Are we too far gone to stop the boulder rolling down the hill picking up steam? I don’t know but a start will be to transparently investigate all that is transpiring at Santa Anita. The Breeders’ Cup will be there in a few months. I would not run or train a horse there without a full and complete understanding of all that has transpired. I think I would want that independently verified for peace of mind. We know thus far, the track is standing by their position it is safe and “OK.”

If we can’t adequately police our industry one of two things happen. It goes away is one and maybe the most likely. The other is someone else polices it and who even knows where that goes. The model we have is not working. It is way past time we change it.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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