A global warming connection to record racehorse deaths?
ARCADIA, California––All eyes concerned about horses and horse racing have had the Santa Anita Park turf and track surfaces under microscopic examination since Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
Yet hardly anyone so far seems to be looking at the possible track-hardening effects of soot and ash deposition from the 96,949-acre Woolsey Fire, which raged for two weeks, November 8, 2018 to November 22, 2018, inundating much of the greater Los Angeles area in a smoky haze.
Most of the smoke initially blew out to sea, but the prevailing winds for the Southern California region then brought it back, more broadly dispersed.
The black clouds hovering over Santa Anita Park more recently have been a mix of rain clouds and metaphor.
Santa Anita Park was closed, between racing seasons, from November 5, 2018 until December 26, 2018––but December 26, the first day that racing resumed, brought the initial death in a string of 21 horse fatalities in just over 10 weeks, including 41 racing days.
This was triple the Santa Anita Park horse death rate in 2017.
Lets Light The Way
Racing and training at Santa Anita Park were indefinitely suspended on March 5, 2019, after the trackside euthanasia of Lets Light The Way, a four-year-old-filly belonging to trainer Ron McAnally’s wife Debbie.
Lets Light The Way, who had one win in just four career races, suffered a shattered sesamoid bone.
“Weather is the cause of all of this. I loved that filly,” 86-year-old trainer Ron McAnally told BloodHorse.
But rain by itself rarely stops racehorses. The renowned Seabiscuit, for instance, won some of his biggest races in mud, at Santa Anita Park.
“Something wrong in the foundation”
“Something is drastically wrong,” 81-year-old trainer Art Sherman told Catherine Garcia of the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve been around a long time and have never seen this. There’s something wrong in the foundation or something is not right. The only way to find out is shut it down.”
“The storied Santa Anita racetrack outside of Los Angeles is suspending races at least through the weekend after 21 horses died at the track over the last 10 weeks,” David K. Li and Doha Madani of NBC News reported several hours later.
The suspension was soon extended at least through March 14, 2019.
“The unprecedented move shut down two major races, the San Felipe for 3-year-old Kentucky Derby hopefuls and the Santa Anita Handicap for older horses, a race with a $600,000 purse,” Li and Madani mentioned.
“Harsh, rain-filled winter”
“Southern California has endured an unusually harsh, rain-filled winter, with 16 inches falling on Arcadia, the home of the track,” from December 26, 2018 through March 5, 2019, Li and Madani continued.
Eleven inches fell just in February. Was that more than Santa Anita Park could handle?
“In whole, we feel confident in the track. We’re just being very proactive,” Tim Ritvo, chief executive of The Stronach Group, owner of Santa Anita Park, said in a prepared statement.
“The safety, health and welfare of the horses and jockeys is our top priority,” Ritvo asserted. “While we are confident further testing will confirm the soundness of the track, the decision to close is the right thing to do at this time. We want to do all the testing that needs to be done.”
Trouble on both dirt & turf
Santa Anita Park has both a dirt racing surface and a turf racing surface––and has had trouble on both.
Of the recent 21 deaths, seven came during racing on dirt, nine during training on dirt, and five on the less often used turf course.
The distribution of the deaths defies simplistic explanations.
“There is no obvious answer,” California Horse Racing Board executive director Rick Baedeker told the National Public Radio program All Things Considered. “So every question is being asked: Is it the surface? Is it the horses that are running on the surface?”
“The deaths are all over the place”
Pointed out California Horse Racing Board chief equine veterinarian Rick Arthur, to the Los Angeles Times, “The deaths are all over the place, from Battle Of Midway, a well-seasoned horse, to a first-time starter. They are from 19 different trainers. There is nothing that links them together.”
Battle of Midway, a five-year-old, finished third in the 2017 Kentucky Derby, before winning the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. He suffered fatal injuries during a February 23, 2019 workout.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals president Ingrid Newkirk suggested in a prepared statement that drugging to keep injured horses running might be involved in the deaths.
Said Newkirk in a prepared statement, “The track should remain closed until the California Horse Racing Board dumps the drugs entirely, or injured horses whose soreness is masked by legally allowed medication will continue to sustain shattered bones. PETA renews its call for a criminal investigation,” Newkirk said, “into the trainers and veterinarians who may have put injured horses on the track, leading to their deaths.”
There is, however, little hint that any of the dead horses were running with any sort of infirmity, especially those who were coming off a 50-day break, or longer, from competition.
After the 19th horse death, Santa Anita Park brought in Mick Peterson, who––with former Santa Anita Park track superintendent Dennis Moore––cofounded the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory at the University of Kentucky in 2014.
Peterson and Andy LaRocco, Moore’s successor as Santa Anita track superintendent, “performed extensive testing on the track’s composition of dirt and soil and found no irregularities,” reported Stephen Sorace of Fox News. “The tests used radar to verify that all of the silt, clay and sand, as well as the moisture content, were consistent throughout the track. The dirt surface was peeled back five inches and reapplied.”
But Peterson found nothing wrong.
“This testing ensures all components, the five-inch cushion, pad and base, are consistent and in good order,” Peterson told media on February 27, 2019.
Racing and training at Santa Anita Park resumed––and two more horse deaths occurred in only two more days of activity.
Moore, who retired from his former position at Santa Anita Park on December 32, 2018, is still track superintendent at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, two hours south of Santa Anita, and at the Los Alamitos racetrack in Orange County, about one hour away.
Moore returned to Santa Anita after the 20th and 21st horse deaths to do further testing with a machine that simulates the impacts of horses’ hoofs.
El Segundo sand
Recalled Associated Press racing writer Beth Harris, “In 2014, Moore oversaw a major renovation of the dirt surface [at Santa Anita Park] using sand that was dug up in the coastal suburb of El Segundo for construction projects at Los Angeles International Airport. The sand was screened for foreign materials and large rocks.
“At the time, track officials said the reddish-brown sand would ensure balanced drainage during periods of wet weather and a consistent, safe cushion for horses year-round. That’s important at Santa Anita, which added several additional weeks of racing to its schedule after the closure of Hollywood Park in Inglewood, California, in December 2013.”
But Santa Anita Park has had an elevated horse death rate since then, albeit much lower than recently.
Dirt normally more dangerous
Dirt surfaces are known to be more dangerous for horses than turf, with a national rate of 1.74 horse deaths per 1,000 starts on dirt in 2017, compared to 1.36 deaths on turf.
Since Santa Anita Park runs many races on turf, while most horse racing venues have only dirt tracks, presumably the Santa Anita Park horse death rate should be lower than the U.S. national average. Santa Anita Park had 2.36 deaths per 1,000 starts in 2017, however, with 20 deaths distributed over 8,463 racing starts over 122 racing days.
According to the Equine Injury Database maintained by The Jockey Club, the death rate throughout the U.S. horse racing industry in 2017 was 1.61 deaths per 1,000 starts.
A year earlier, in 2016, the national average was 1.54 horse deaths per 1,000 starts, despite a still unexplained record 27 horse deaths in 2016 at Del Mar.
“Composition doesn’t change”
“The composition of the track at Santa Anita over the last four years, working with Dennis and monthly samples, doesn’t change. It doesn’t move,” Peterson told Scott Jagow, editor-in-chief of The Paulick Report, a leading horse racing industry online periodical.
“The needle is just sitting there solidly in the right place. And even after we had all this rain, we tested it and it looks just like it had before,” Peterson insisted. “There’s something we don’t understand. We’ve got to work on this.”
Wrote Jagow, “Moore has started another examination of the Santa Anita surface. Meanwhile, one area Peterson is working to develop is real-time analysis of moisture content. He said that could be a critical tool for a track like Santa Anita, where moisture levels might vary significantly between the backstretch and the frontside, for example, at any given moment.
Little current research
“In the bigger picture,” Jagow continued, “Peterson said the fact he can name, off the top of his head, the relatively few comprehensive track surface studies of the past four decades is indicative of what needs to change.
“In the real world,” Jagow observed, “one thing that is changing — and dramatically — is the weather. February was one of the coldest and rainiest months on record in Southern California, and many in the track maintenance world believe that has to be one of the factors at work here.”
Seal the track?
Jagow went on to discuss whether “sealing” the Santa Anita Park dirt track might help to prevent horse injuries.
“A multi-step process leads to a sealed racetrack,’ Jagow said, “but the end result is a more packed down surface that allows water to roll off of it. While sealing racetracks may have become a daily practice in many places, there’s no evidence to suggest a sealed track is harder — or less safe — than a dry one, despite how it might sound.
“Peterson said the more consistent track, sealed or open, is generally safer, which makes the recent problems at Santa Anita all the more confounding,” Jagow finished, “because comprehensive tests found it to be consistent in composition and moisture content.”
Soot & ashes
But no one said anything about soot and ashes.
Volcanic ash, in combination with rain, notoriously makes roads and other surfaces slippery and unstable.
Wood soot and ashes have the opposite effect.
Wood ashes are often used, usually in combination with calcium chloride, to help melt ice on pavement, making it less slippery.
Wood ashes are also used to help hold unstable sand and clay road surfaces together. Wood ashes in particular tend to make dirt roads harder, more like asphalt, more resistant to tire damage––and perhaps more likely to cause injuries to horses, when wet tracks dry.
Ashes harden sand roads
“Unstable sands are widespread in some regions of the United States where unpaved roads are important and numerous and where timber and paper industries are active, but gravel is not readily available,” wrote Mark L. Russell in “Stabilizing Sand Roads with Wood Products and Byproducts,” a 2015 study published by the Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board.
The problem most concerning Russell was how to harden roads so that vehicles would not become stuck in sand.
Boiler ash, a paper mill byproduct that is essentially wood ash, comparable to the wildfire fallout that drifted over Santa Anita Park, “has favorable chemical and mechanical properties and appears to be particularly promising as a road stabilizer,” Russell found.
Wood ash & clay stands up to big trucks
Earlier, Austrian scientists Gerald Bohrm and Karl Stampfer in a 2013 report on “Untreated Wood Ash as a Structural Stabilizing Material in Forest Roads” recommended that because wood ash and clay easily bond, ash from some biomass-burning power plants could be used to make dirt roads safer––meaning, again, harder and more resistant to tire damage.
Bohrm and Stampfer were most concerned about damage to dirt roads done by loaded logging trucks.
The effects of ashes deliberately mixed with other road repair materials in measured amounts might differ from the effects of ashes and soot haphazardly distributed across a race track surface over several weeks, mixed into the other track materials by hoof action, routine raking and rolling, and––especially––heavy rainfall.
The combination of ash deposition with wet clay, under pounding hoofs, could even produce contradictory effects at the same time: partially hardened material clumping here, slippery patches there, varying with the amount of water pooled on the surface and the amount absorbed into the sub-surface.
Wisconsin, where Russell did his research, and Austria, where Bohrm and Stampfer did theirs, get on average more than 10 times as much precipitation as the greater Los Angeles area and the populated parts of Australia where most of the Australian horse tracks are––and about 20 times as much rainfall as Arizona.
Therefore, Russell, Bohrm and Stampfer did not look at directly comparable conditions.
No data on ash, dirt, & flash-floods
Russell, Bohrm and Stampfer also did not look at the effects on ash-stabilized dirt roads of the abrupt, heavy rains that cause flash-floods, characteristic of desert habitats, including Southern California, Arizona, and Australia.
While Wisconsin and Austria normally get a lot of rain, they rarely get prolonged dry weather followed by downpours, such as preceded the Santa Anita horse deaths––and might accentuate the hardening effect of ash deposition.
Extrapolating the Russell, Bohrm and Stampfer research to what happens on horse tracks in desert climates after uncharacteristic soot-laden rainfall is speculative––but it points in the same direction as complaints from some trainers that the Santa Anita Park surfaces seem to be drying into “concrete” after heavy rains.
Not much other relevant science seems to have been done.
But, together with the trainers’ complaints, the Russell, Bohrm and Stampfer studies suggest that solving the Santa Anita Park problem might require the help of geologists and materials scientists.
Correlation, causation, & confluence
Correlation does not imply causation, of course, and even a correlation of soot and ash from wildfires with horse racing fatalities is far from established.
Nonetheless, ANIMALS 24-7 has turned up a confluence of megafires burning thousands of acres in proximity to unexplained rashes of horse racing deaths not only at Santa Anita Park, but also at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in 2016; Los Alamitos in mid-2018; tracks in Arizona in 2017 and 2018; and in Australia since 2014.
To establish an actual correlation of wildfires, soot, ash, rainfall, and rashes of horse racing fatalities would require considerably more research than ANIMALS 24-7 has been able to do in just a few days, on a budget of nothing.
Getting quick results would take a team
One would have to be able to plot on a graph the size, dates, and distance from race tracks of the major fires that might be implicated; the relevant weather conditions, including wind direction, speed, and volume of precipitation; and the dates of fatal horse injuries––and then compare that data to the data from other time frames in the same regions.
Doctorates have been awarded to individual scientists for doing much less complex studies.
Yet the necessary research could be done by a team with adequate funding and access to all of the necessary information within a matter of days.
Along with the horse death and injury information pertaining to Santa Anita Park in 2018-2019, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in 2016, Los Alamitos in mid-2018, the Arizona tracks in 2017-2018, and the Australian tracks where abnormal numbers of horse fatalities have occurred since 2014, a thorough study might also look at horse death and injury records––if they still exist––from the Golden Gate Fields track in Berkeley, California, following the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991.
The data tentatively associating horse racing deaths with drifting smoke, such as it is, began piling up first in Australia. Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organization scientist Ritaban Dutta in 2016 documented a 40% increase in bushfires per week occurring between 2008 and 2013. Since, then the volume and intensity of bushfires appears to have continued to rise.
Meanwhile, the horse death toll from “jumps” racing, the most dangerous form of horse racing, not allowed in U.S. para-muteul racing, reportedly dropped by 70% in Victoria state from 2009 to 2018.
In theory the improvement in “jumps” racing safety should have drastically lowered the overall annual Australian horse racing death toll.
But it did not. Australian horse racing deaths––officially tracked only in actual competition––from 2014 through 2018 totaled 125, 116, 132, 137, and 119.
Two major wildfires immediately preceded the rash of horse deaths in 2016 at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club .
First was the Border fire, which burned 7,609 acres, 30 miles southeast of Del Mar, from June 19, 2016 to June 30, 2016. Three weeks after the Border fire was put out, the Roblar fire razed 1,245 acres, 30 miles straight north from Del Mar, from July 21, 2016 to July 30, 2016.
Prevailing winds might have carried soot and ash from both fires to Del Mar.
The 27 horse deaths at Del Mar started on July 15, 2016, peaked with five deaths from July 21, 2016 through July 24, 2016, while the Roblar fire was burning, and continued until December 3, 2016.
Arizona has only three pari-mutuel horse tracks: Turf Paradise, in Phoenix, with 131 live racing dates per year; Riliito Racetrack in Tucson, with just three; and Sonoita Horse Races in Santa Cruz County, with only two.
Going into the 2017-2018 racing season, the three Arizona tracks had a cumulative fatality rate of just slightly more than the U.S. national average.
Then, on April 23, 2017, Wikipedia summarizes, “a father hosting a gender reveal party shot a target containing tannerite (an explosive substance) and blue powder, to announce that the baby was a boy.”
The 46,911-acre wildfire that followed was the biggest in Arizona since 2011, and the eighth biggest on record in Arizona ever.
Fifty horses were euthanized due to injury at the Arizona tracks during the 2017-2018 racing season, 45 of them at Turf Paradise.
Reported Dennis Wagner of the Arizona Republic on February 4, 2019, “That’s more than twice the number of catastrophic injuries experienced two years earlier, and double the national equine death rate at tracks.
“Of the track’s 45 fatalities, 27 occurred during competition and 10 more during training runs — mostly suffering leg or fetlock (ankle) injuries. Eight horses died due to non-exercise issues such as pneumonia or colic.”
Turf Paradise, in response, began cancelling more races due to heavy rain storms.
As the “gender reveal” fire was 145 miles away, connecting it with the surge in deaths at Turf Paradise is especially shaky.
Los Alamitos, on the other hand, had five horse deaths in just seven days of racing in July-August 2018, coinciding with the peak of the Cranston Fire, which burned 13,139 acres in Riverside County, about 50 miles away, between July 26, 2018 and August 10, 2018.
During that same time frame a catastrophic pile-up at Santa Anita Park, also about 50 miles away, on August 4, 2018 killed a horse named Irish Spring and injured two jockeys.
Yet another major wildfire occurred in the greater Los Angeles season during the 2018 racing season––the Holy Fire, razing 23,136 acres in the Cleveland National Forest, about 30 miles southeast of Santa Anita, from August 6, 2018 to September 13, 2018.
ANIMALS 24-7 has been unable to determine whether the Holy Fire coincided with an unusual spike in track deaths.
“Had not thought of that”
The Woolsey Fire, by far the biggest in Southern California in 2018, as recently as 2000 would have been among the 20 biggest in California history, but there have been so many mega-fires in California since then that it is now fairly far down the list.
Did the soot and ash from the Woolsey Fire somehow affect Santa Anita Park in a manner contributing to horse deaths?
“I had not thought of that,” Mick Peterson told ANIMALS 24-7. “I have had several ‘outside the box’ suggestions, all of which need to be considered. Since the issues are both turf and dirt, I have told people weather and horses are the main things that they have in common. This is well outside my expertise,” Peterson concluded, “but I will pass it on.”