It’s been a miraculous turnaround at Santa Anita Park. Just four years ago, the racetrack in Arcadia was thought to be the deadliest track in the nation after dozens of horses died from musculoskeletal injuries.
In 2022, Santa Anita saw no horses die from musculoskeletal injuries suffered on its main track, thanks to a series of safety measures and protocols implemented after the track was forced to shut down for weeks in 2019.
Many thought Santa Anita was most dangerous track in North America
California boasts four world-renowned racetracks: Santa Anita Park, Del Mar Fairgrounds, Golden Gate Fields and Los Alamitos Race Course. California horse racing fans can bet on horses at the tracks or at several off-track venues and online sites.
Just a few short years ago, though, the industry was in crisis. Aidan Butler, chief executive officer at The Stronach Group 1/ST Racing and Gaming, which owns Santa Anita, recounts 2019 with a shudder.
“It was horrific. Can you imagine having bloody helicopters from the news stations flying over the track every time a horse was injured?”
Known as one of the premier racetracks in North America prior to 2019, Santa Anita became the focus of consternation after horse after horse was put down after racing at the track. At least 30 horses were euthanized, forcing the track to shut down to examine its safety protocols.
‘The sport could be in jeopardy’
One thing was clear: Something had to be done. Forming a consensus, however, proved tricky. Officials could not initially agree on what was happening to cause so many horses to die, Butler said.
“At the time, it was a very angry place, and everybody was pointing fingers at everyone else. A lot of it was completely unnecessary. Nobody wants to see animals get injured. It is not good for anyone’s business. But 2019 gave us the ability to look at things differently because things had really gotten bad. Everybody understood that something had to change. Something had to give. Horsemen, owners, trainers, everyone understood that business as usual will not fly anymore. The emphasis on safety had to be the core of the sport, because without it, the sport could be in jeopardy.”
Butler and others decided it was time to completely overhaul Santa Anita’s safety standards.
“Initially, there was some pushback. But trainers in California realized at the time that we were in a dire situation and unless everybody got on board and started pulling with the same oar, potentially, we were going to be out of business. There is always resentment when there is a change like that, but in general, horsemen have come to embrace this. People can adapt very quickly when they have to.”
Closely monitoring horses makes a big difference
When officials went to work on finding solutions to the horse safety problem, they began with the basics. They rebuilt everything from the bottom up, Butler said.
“Everything we do must have an emphasis on safety. That’s bandied around a lot and everybody likes to talk about safety and how they want the races to be safe. We had an opportunity in 2019, albeit after an awful situation, to really reset the clock and look at every aspect of how we operate at Santa Anita.”
That is when dramatic changes began to happen.
Vet exams become commonplace
The most impactful change made at Santa Anita was watching the horses closely. Management required horses to be constantly monitored and subjected to vet exams. In 2022, Santa Anita performed an incredible 5,381 vet exams on 4,673 different horses.
Eoin Harty, president of California Thoroughbred Trainers, believes the inspections were key to the track’s safety turnaround.
“If I could pick one thing that had made a difference is the vet-trainer inspection prior to a workout or a race. You’re forced to stand there and watch your horse jog up and down the road with your vet. If there is any doubt whatsoever, your vet isn’t going to sign off on it because it’s going to be on his head if something happens. They have to sign a book that says the horse is good, and that information is turned into the racing office. All the checks and balances have to be in place.”
Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group, agrees.
“It’s been an effort by the veterinarians that we have who work for Santa Anita as well as the private veterinarians. We look very critically at horses to make sure they are ready to race. And the trainers are doing an excellent job of horsemanship and making good decisions for their horses.”
An end to pain-blocking meds
Another important change was to ban pain-blocking medications, Benson said.
“We’re making sure any horse out there isn’t on any pain-blocking medications. With any athlete, if you have anything wrong, medications that block the pain is where larger problems can start.”
Other tracks in California have made similar safety changes
Initial returns on the new policy were very, very strong. Santa Anita’s winter/spring meet last year saw a significant safety turnaround and was successful enough to where track management called it “the safest track in North America.” That trend continued throughout the year, and Benson is proud of the changes that were made.
“That’s one of those things you hope for but it seems almost impossible. I could not be more thrilled with the work done by everyone involved. And that is what has made all the difference.”
Many of the measures implemented at Santa Anita have found their way to other California tracks such as Del Mar, which had just two deaths during its last racing season. Both were sudden deaths, not from musculoskeletal issues due to racing.
Del Mar President and COO Josh Rubinstein also credits safety overhauls as the reason for so few horse deaths.
“Since we implemented a series of reforms four years ago, including enhanced training protocols and increased veterinary and track surface monitoring, Del Mar has been one of the safest tracks in the country for horse and rider. It is great to see similar progress throughout the state, though we know safety and welfare are ongoing and we need to stay diligent.”
With the new safety protocols in place, Butler is optimistic that horse racing will continue to grow and thrive in California.
“What happened in 2019 is that it opened up our eyes as to how we must make this sport safer. Because if we didn’t, the sport was going to be in jeopardy and be in jeopardy quickly. … By fixing things the way we did, I think we potentially saved the sport in California.”