Santa Anita deaths revive debate over track surface safety
ARCADIA, California––Famed as the oldest horse racing venue in California, hosting races 1904-1909, 1934-1941, and 1945-present, and as the scene of some of the most memorable wins by Seabiscuit and come-from-behind specialist Silky Sullivan, Santa Anita Park is suddenly notorious for 20 horse deaths in barely more than two months.
Not since the raceway was commandeered in 1942 for temporary use as a concentration camp for Japanese Americans, including five-year-old George Takei, later a star of Star Trek, has such a dark cloud hung so heavily over a course perhaps known best for bright sunshine and few race cancellations.
Filly fatally injured while running first
Uncharacteristically heavy recent rainfall may be behind the abnormal rash of fatal injuries to hard-running horses––or maybe not.
Whatever the reason, Santa Anita Park cancelled almost a week of racing after the filly Eskenforadrink suffered a fracture of her right front fetlock on March 2, 2019 while leading the field late in the backstretch in a $16,000 claiming event for older fillies and mares.
After Eskenforadrink owner Oscar Heredia trainer Jorge Gutierrez “discussed and evaluated the possibility of attempting to save her with the goal of making her a broodmare, the decision was made to euthanize,” California Horse Racing Board veterinarian Tim Grande told BloodHorse writer Jeremy Balan.
“Twenty dead horses is 20 too many!”
Fumed People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in a prepared statement, “Twenty dead horses is 20 too many and the only responsible action is for the track to close immediately to stop this spiral of deaths. The California Horse Racing Board and Santa Anita must do this now, and law enforcement must begin an immediate investigation of trainers and veterinarians to find out if injured horses were being forced to run.”
Reported Leanne Suter of KABC-7/Los Angeles, “PETA is also calling for the district attorney to investigate, as track officials wait for results of their own investigation to see if the tragedies are connected.”
Two different surfaces involved in deaths
Santa Anita Park has both a conventional dirt track and a turf course.
“Six of the fatalities have occurred during dirt racing and five during turf racing,” noted Los Angeles Times horse racing correspondent John Cherwa after the 19th horse death since December 26, 2018.
“By comparison,” Cherwa wrote, “last year there were 10 deaths in an equivalent period of time. In 2016-17 there were eight. In 2015-16 there were 14.”
The 19th horse to die during the 2018-2019 season was Charmer John, a three-year-old gelding who fell on the home stretch during a training run. On Valentine’s Day, 12 days earlier, Charmer John had finished sixth in a field of eight in the only race of his brief career.
“What the hell do we do?”
After Charmer John’s death, Santa Anita Park brought in racetrack surfaces expert Mick Peterson, director of Agricultural Equine Programs at the University of Kentucky, to do two days of investigation of the track conditions.
Peterson found nothing wrong.
“But when I heard about (Eskenforadrink’s death), my response was, ‘What the hell do we do?’ We need to work on it,” Peterson told Balan of BloodHorse.
“This is unusual. It does happen though. It’s called statistical clustering, but we always take it seriously. This is not an acceptable number of catastrophic injuries,” Peterson added to Suter of KABC.
253 other horses ran the day before without incident
Eskenforadrink was injured, wrote Balan, after “the first time the main track took significant rainfall,” following a temporary closure while Peterson did his research.
“When the main track was reopened for training on February 28, 2019,” Balan continued, “the 45 horses who recorded timed workouts on the main track and the 50 who raced during the day’s card came back without serious injury. Training and racing on March 1, 2019 were also completed without incident as 253 horses recorded timed works on the main track and 68 raced. All came back without any serious injury. Sixty horses participated in Santa Anita’s 10-race Saturday card.”
Jockey was involved in Del Mar fatality
For jockey Geovanni Franco, who pulled Eskenforadrink up for the last time, the breakdown must have evoked memories of the 10th race on August 4, 2018 at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, 112 miles south on the far side of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
According to San Diego Union Tribune coverage, “Aussie Fox, ridden by apprentice Assael Espinoza, moved from the second lane to the rail directly in front of Irish Spring [ridden by Corey Nakatani], who clipped the hind heels of Aussie Fox. As Irish Spring went down, Bitter Ring Home [ridden by Franco] went over the top of the fallen horse and also went down. Both Nakatani and Franco were thrown to the grass.”
Irish Spring “died of injuries suffered in the fall,” the second horse to die at Del Mar during the 2018 season, the San Diego Union Tribune recounted.
Bitter Ring Home was unhurt, but both Nakatani and Franco were hospitalized for observation.
Del Mar had explosion of horse deaths in 2016
Twenty-one horses died at Del Mar during a catastrophic 2016 racing season: seven racing, six in training during the summer meet, and five more during the 15-day fall meet.
“According to the Stewards Minutes, there were another eight unidentified horses who died either at Del Mar or while being prepped off-site for upcoming Del Mar races,” alleged the Horseracing Wrongs web site.
Responding to the deaths of 17 horses during the 2005 racing season, and 14 more in 2006, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club installed an $8 million Polytrack surface over the winter of 2006-2007. Horse deaths fell to just six during the 2007 racing season.
Synthetic surfaces safer
Over the next two years, data collected by the Jockey Club from track veterinarians at 34 thoroughbred racing venues showed that horses running on synthetic surfaces averaged 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts, compared with 2.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts for horses running on dirt.
More significantly, the death rates at the California tracks that converted from dirt to synthetic surfaces, under pressure of a mandate from the state racing board, fell from 3.19 per 1,000 starts in 2005-2006 to 1.37 in 2007-2008––an improvement of 57%.
But synthetic surfaces proved to be problematic in other ways.
Synthetic surfaces do have real problems
“Many trainers in California and elsewhere say that synthetic surfaces lead to more soft tissue hind leg injuries,” reported Alan Zarembo of the Los Angeles Times in March 2012.
In addition, Zarembo wrote, “Synthetic surfaces can be more difficult to maintain than dirt,” especially an $11 million Cushion Track surface installed at Santa Anita before the 2007 racing season. The Santa Anita drainage system failed in mid-2008, costing the track eight racing dates.
“Attempts to fix the problem only made things worse,” Zarembo wrote. “When rocks began to poke through the surface, the trainers threatened a boycott and the track owners announced that they were giving up on synthetics. The state horse racing board granted Santa Anita an exemption, and the track was reconverted to dirt,” in December 2010.
Luck ran out
The results of the re-conversion, however, underscored the success of the synthetic surfaces in preventing the irrecoverable injuries that result in horse deaths.
“The deaths of three horses during the production of the television horse racing drama Luck – which happened to be made at Santa Anita – drew attention to the issue,” Zarembo wrote.
“HBO canceled the series after the third incident in which a horse on the set suffered injuries and had to be euthanized,” as were 186 other horses in California due to racing and training incidents in 2011.
Deaths at Santa Anita more than doubled on dirt
“An additional 79 horses died at tracks from other causes, including intestinal and respiratory diseases,” Zarembo found from state racing board reports.
At Santa Anita, Zarembo learned, “In three years of running on a synthetic track, there were 26 racing deaths, or 1.5 fatalities per 1,000 starts. After the change back to dirt, there 3.7 fatalities per 1,000 starts.”
At the California tracks retaining synthetic surfaces through 2011 –– Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields and Hollywood Park –– the fatality rate remained low, at 1.8 fatalities per 1,000 starts.
Nonetheless, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013, Del Mar converted back to a dirt surface to conform to the Santa Anita conditions.