Horse Deaths Are Haunting the Racing World Ahead of the Kentucky Derby. Here’s What’s Being Done to Stop Them

The Kentucky Derby, which will be run for the 145th time on May 4, is the oldest continuously held major sporting event in U.S. This year, however, talk of mint juleps, stylish hats and Triple Crown dreams may be overshadowed by a disturbing spate of horse deaths — and fresh calls to regulate the sport.

Between late December and early April, nearly two-dozen Thoroughbred horses died while racing or training at California’s Santa Anita Park. The cause of the fatal injuries is unknown, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney is investigating the deaths. As with all horse injuries, multiple factors may be at play, say safety experts, including heavy rainfall that may have compromised the track surface. The track shut down for much of March and adopted several new policies, including banning the use of drugs on race day and increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race.

“While the cause of the injuries on the racetrack might be varied, they have one thing in common: the industry has yet to do everything that can be done to prevent them,” wrote Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of the Stronach Group — which owns Santa Anita — in a March open letter. “That changes today.”

That’s a small start. But reforms at one track likely won’t be enough to fix the sport’s systemic problems. Last year, 493 horses died or were euthanized within 72 hours of sustaining a catastrophic race injury. That’s about 10 horses each week. In the last ten years, a total of 6,134 horses have died. That tally doesn’t include deaths from training.

PETA and other animal-rights advocates are sounding off. So are notable horse racing organizations, which say that many horse deaths are preventable. In March, the Jockey Club, which holds the registry for Thoroughbred horses, released a scathing report calling out the sport for tolerating performance-enhancing drugs and running horses that are medicated to dull the pain of pre-existing injuries. “The issue isn’t about a single track,” the report reads. “Horse fatalities are a nationwide problem, one that has shocked fans, the industry, the regulators and the general public.”

An industry overhaul would be difficult, if not nearly impossible, to implement because horse racing has no national rule-making body. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), which sets best safety practices, has no teeth to mandate them. Instead, 38 racing jurisdictions set their own standards.

“We are more of a carrot organization than stick,” says Steve Koch, executive director of the Safety and Integrity Alliance at NTRA, which has accredited 23 tracks. Another 40 tracks are making efforts to be accredited, while others are not engaged with the alliance at all. “We’re making progress, but are not quite there yet.”

Federal oversight is still far off. The Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019 was introduced in the House earlier this year to establish a private, independent horse racing anti-doping authority. It has 69 cosponsors, but does not have full support from the industry. Prior versions of the legislation also failed to make headway in Congress.

History has shown that reforms triggered by horse deaths roll out slowly and inconsistently, from state to state and from track to track.

For instance, after beloved Thoroughbreds Barbaro and Eight Belles died in the late 2000s, the industry began to collect fatal injury data for every U.S. track. Today, every racetrack reports injury death rates to a national database. But only a handful make those numbers public. In Kentucky, Keeneland and Turfway Park both report publicly. But Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, does not. In March, the Louisville Courier-Journal discovered via a public records request that the death rate at Churchill Downs was 2.73 per 1,000 racing starts last year—more than 60% higher than the national average.

This week, the Derby track released a list of safety initiatives that it plans to support in the coming years, as well as a statement from Churchill Downs Inc. chief executive Bill Carstanjen: “As the host of the Kentucky Derby and a key leader in the racing industry, Churchill Downs has a heightened responsibility to implement the world’s best practices for caring for racehorses at our facilities.”

The NTRA’s Koch believes that efforts over the last decade, such as curbing doping drugs and evolving veterinarian protocols, have made a difference. While the U.S. racing fatality rate rose 4% in 2018 compared to the year before, since 2009 the fatality rate has actually declined 16%, from 2 deaths per 1,000 race starts in 2009 to 1.68 last year.

More change could be underway. In mid-April, 20 leading tracks pledged to phase out a drug called Lasix in the coming years. Lasix treats a rare lung condition, but, according to the Jockey Club, it is given to about 95% of horses on race day because it induces urination. Lighter and faster, the horses perform better, but need days to recover and rehydrate.

That’s good news leading into the Kentucky Derby. This year, like every year, America will fall for — and bet on — the Thoroughbreds at Churchill Downs. Now, the racing industry is under pressure to take better care of them.

Sports – TIME

ENTERTAINMENT DEAL UPDATE:

Santa Anita Racetrack Cancels Racing Indefinitely After Deaths of 21 Horses

(ARCADIA, Calif.) — Santa Anita has canceled racing indefinitely to re-examine its dirt surface after the deaths of 21 horses in the last two months.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that racing won’t be held this weekend, when two major races were scheduled: the San Felipe for 3-year-old Kentucky Derby hopefuls and the Santa Anita Handicap for older horses.

Ritvo wouldn’t speculate on when training and racing would resume. After this weekend, races were to be run again starting March 14 at the storied racetrack that will host the Breeders’ Cup world championships for a record 10th time this fall.

“In whole, we feel confident in the track and we’re just being very proactive,” Ritvo said. “We want to do all the testing that needs to be done. When we believe we’re in good shape, we’ll start to train over it again.”

The Daily Racing Form first reported the cancellation.

The latest fatality occurred during training on Tuesday, when a 4-year-old filly got injured and was euthanized.

“Obviously, one horse is too many,” Ritvo said. “The recent rash is just horrible. We need to definitely take a step back and evaluate everything.”

Santa Anita received 11½ inches of rain and had unusually cold temperatures in February, but it’s unclear whether track conditions played a role in any of the fatalities.

The National Weather Service was forecasting 1 to 2 inches of rain in Los Angeles County starting overnight Tuesday and into Wednesday.

“We think that (rain) could definitely contribute even though our experts are telling us not,” Ritvo said. “The tracks out here are built not for weather like that.”

Ritvo said officials are “a little bit concerned” with the latest impending storm and how the dirt surface can change from muddy to fast in a short time.

Besides re-examining the dirt track, Ritvo said all racing protocols would be looked at.

“We won’t rush it,” he said. “Everybody takes a deep breath.”

Ritvo was uncertain whether the San Felipe and Santa Anita Handicap would be rescheduled.

“Those are huge races,” he said. “We hope so.”

Seven deaths have occurred during races on the dirt oval at Santa Anita since the track’s winter meet began on Dec. 26. Five have occurred on the turf course and nine came during training on dirt. The highest-profile horse to be euthanized was Battle of Midway, winner of the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. The 5-year-old bay also finished third in the 2017 Kentucky Derby for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. The horse suffered injuries during a workout on Feb. 23.

Last week, Santa Anita was closed for two days while the dirt surface underwent extensive testing and was declared fit for racing.

Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally said 4-year-old filly Lets Light the Way “took a bad step or something” on Tuesday.

He said the injury was a shattered sesamoid in her right front leg. Sesamoid bones provide anchor points for the two branches of the suspensory ligament. The bones are under stress each time a horse takes a step. Lets Light the Way was X-rayed and later euthanized.

“I think the weather has a lot to do with it,” said McAnally, whose wife, Debbie, owned the filly.

“Santa Anita has been a wonderful track, and they’ve done all kinds of tests,” McAnally said. “I don’t know what else they could do. It’s a fluky thing.”

Also Tuesday, Vyjack was pulled up after completing a five-furlong workout, according to trainer Phil D’Amato. The graded stakes-winning 9-year-old gelding was taken off the track in a van. But D’Amato told the Daily Racing Form that Vyjack “took a couple of funny steps” and was OK.

The number of deaths has drawn both concern and criticism. A handful of animal-rights activists gathered outside Santa Anita’s main gate on Sunday, carrying signs and shouting.

PETA President Ingrid Newkirk agreed with the track’s decision to close.

“This was the right thing to do,” she said in a 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 into the trainers and veterinarians who may have put injured horses on the track, leading to their deaths.”

Ritvo said, “The first and most important thing is the health and welfare of the horses and jockeys.”

In 2017, 20 deaths occurred among a total of 8,463 starts over a span of 122 racing days at Santa Anita, according to the most recent figures compiled by The Jockey Club. That’s a rate of 2.36 deaths per 1,000 starts.

There were 1.61 deaths per 1,000 starts in the U.S. in 2017, according to the most recent figures from the Equine Injury Database, compiled by The Jockey Club. That was a slight increase in the rate of fatal injury compared with 2016, when there were 1.54 deaths per 1,000 starts.

The deaths were more frequent on dirt surfaces (1.74 per 1,000 starts) than on turf (1.36).

Santa Anita was closed for two days last week while the dirt surface was tested.

Mick Peterson, a soil and safety expert brought in from the University of Kentucky, proclaimed the track “100 percent ready” to resume racing.

Peterson said radar verified that all of the silt, clay and sand, as well as the moisture content, were consistent throughout the track. Its dirt surface was peeled back 5 inches and reapplied.

Since Peterson’s comments, two horses have died, including McAnally’s filly. The 86-year-old trainer is one of the most respected in horse racing and has won three Eclipse Awards as the nation’s outstanding trainer.

Lets Light the Way had one win in four career starts and earnings of $ 18,500, according to Equibase. She last raced Feb. 2 at Santa Anita. McAnally purchased the filly for $ 15,000.

The other death occurred Saturday during the third race when 4-year-old filly Eskenforadrink was in the lead. Jockey Geovanni Franco pulled her up with an injury to her front leg. The filly was taken off the track and was later euthanized.

Track officials announced Tuesday that a former track superintendent is returning immediately to Santa Anita as a consultant on site as “a precautionary measure with regard to the condition of the one-mile main track.” The consultant, Dennis Moore, worked in Arcadia from 2014 until retiring Dec. 31. He currently holds the same position at Del Mar and Los Alamitos racetrack in Orange County.

In 2014, Moore oversaw a major renovation of the dirt surface 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.

Sports – TIME

ENTERTAINMENT DEAL UPDATE:

This 1987 Ferrari F40 LM in French Racing Blue Is up for Auction

The latest automobile to hit RM Sotheby’s auction house is a very special 1987 Ferrari F40 LM. While the F40 is already a remarkable race car, this particular variant combines racing pedigree with historical significance.

Hard to miss, this F40 LM comes wrapped in French Racing Blue, with decals that tell of its involvement with the Pilot-Aldix racing team. This LM version takes the stock numbers of the twin-turbo engine (471-bhp, 201-mph), and cranks it up to over 700-bhp thanks to the enlarged IHI turbocharger, Weber-Marelli fuel injectors, and intercooler setup. The F40 has also be stripped of weight, sitting at just 1,050 kg. The cars chassis has also been stiffened, and the drivetrain has been matched with a race-ready transmission.

The purchaser may want to hold off on throwing this around on the track as it does hold historic significance in the racing world – participating twice in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1995 and 1996, and it is also the winner of the 1995 Anderstorp 4 Hours.

Set to go under the hammer on February 6, this one of 19 Competizione-spec Ferrari F40 LM is estimated to fetch somewhere between €4,500,000 EUR – €5,500,000 EUR (approximately $ 5,160,000 USD – $ 6,300,000 USD).

In other automotive news, AAPE joins Suzuki for an exclusive camouflage Jimmy SUV.

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