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Public Opinion: What is Happening at Santa Anita Park?

In Arcadia, California, a place of beauty and history lives. Santa Anita Park has been a bustling center for Thoroughbred horse racing since it opened the doors at its current location in 1934. Below the mountains that make Santa Anita Park so picturesque, horses such as Seabiscuit and Affirmed have made history. More recently, Justify made a stop there on his way to winning the 2018 Triple Crown and Zenyatta became the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park in 2009.

It is important to preserve history for future generations which is why it is crucial that the recent problems that have been surfacing at Santa Anita and because of Santa Anita are fixed.

Twenty-two horses have died at Santa Anita since the winter meet began on Dec. 26th. Although the reasons for these breakdowns have been debated, there are things we know as true. On March 5th, the track closed its doors indefinitely after twenty-one horses suffered fatal injuries over the course of a few months. Five of these injuries occured on the turf track, sixteen occured on the main dirt track. Later that day, expert track consultant Dennis Moore returned to Santa Anita to look over the park’s dirt track.

On March 13th, the track was reopened for training after being declared “safe”. According to BloodHorse, the owners of Santa Anita Park (as well as other racetracks), the Stronach Group, held a meeting that day with representatives from Thoroughbred Owners of California, Del Mar Racetrack, and the California Horse Racing Board to discuss new safety protocols.

On March 14th, a three-year old filly named Lil Princess B broke both of her front legs during a timed workout on the main track and was euthanized. Fox News was in attendance, filming the injury and broadcasting it to audiences that are already sensitive on horse racing. The track held the position that it is safe and is keeping the track open for training.

On the afternoon of March 14th, the Stronach Group released an open letter that detailed what the future of horse racing in California will look like. In this letter, it was announced that Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields will become the first North American racetracks to follow the standards of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA). These standards include:

- Banning the use of Lasix

- Increasing the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids.

- Complete transparency of all veterinary records.

- Significantly increasing out-of-competition testing.

- Increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race.

- A substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.

- Horses in training are only allowed therapeutic medication with a qualified veterinary diagnosis.

The letter also announced limitations on the riding crop, only allowing it to be used as a corrective safety measure.

A meeting held between the Santa Anita, Golden Gate, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) decided that all horses born after 2018 (horses making their debut in 2020 or later) will have to race without medication at Santa Anita and Golden Gate. This allows trainers to adjust their stables over the next few years to medication-free horses.

Investigators with the Los Angeles County District Attorney are working with the California Horse Racing Boards to investigate the twenty-two fatalities. Racing is set to resume at Santa Anita Park on March 29th.

The open letter was met with praise, outrage, and confusion. It seems that the majority of racing fans and industry insiders believe this to be a step in the right direction for reforming the sport, but the question remains: “Why have twenty-two horses been fatally injured at Santa Anita and not elsewhere?”.

I talked to a variety of racing fans and insiders to see what learn what their opinions on the breakdowns and what is being done to stop them are. All quotes that are included beyond this point are opinions that the participants have formed from their individual experiences (unless they are quotes from press releases or statements). Use these opinions from both sides of every argument to help you as you form your own thoughts on the subject matter.

Tom Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, told Fox 11 News that he has complete confidence in the track at Santa Anita. Southern California received more than eleven inches of rain in February and many people believe that this has made the track unsafe. Others agree with Ritvo, voicing their concerns about the unsoundness of horses and the use of drugs.

Nicole Meiner, a 26 year old horse racing photographer, believes that the track has to be a factor, although it may not be the only reason for the breakdowns. “Whenever there’s a dramatic increase in fatalities, I can’t reconcile the idea that the track has nothing at all to do with it,” she said. “ It’s possible that it’s causing unsoundness, it’s possible it’s exposing existing unsoundness, but I can’t see a way it isn’t a factor”.

Jen Paragallo, now in her 40s, has worked on the racetrack since she was a teenager. She has worked as a groom, an exercise rider, a jockey, a trainer, and even as an assistant trainer. She believes that the surface could be causing the problems. “Considering the amount of recent rainfall in So Cal, it could most definitely be a surface problem,” Paragallo said.

Megan Johnson is a 22 year old, second generation racetracker. She has owned Thoroughbreds and OTTBs, and has worked on breeding farms and on the backside. She believes that the rain in Southern California has compromised the track. “If you shuffle dirt 50 times without replacing it, it's still the same dirt. The nature of the injuries isolated at Santa Anita suggests heavily it is the track itself,” she stated. “The sudden influx of rain having nowhere to go, in my opinion, has compromised the track”.

Dinah Moors has been a breeder, an owner, an exercise rider, and a trainer. Unlike Meiner and Paragallo, Moors does not believe that the surface is a problem. “I believe it is not the surface and it is a combination of other factors,” she stated. “Medications, previous injuries, missed injuries, shock wave, and breeding. And in some instances, bad training, pushing unfit horses to hard”.

Jen Paragallo aboard Spring to the Sky, contender in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita Park.

The Stronach Group answered the public’s outcry for a reason for the breakdowns with the banning of race day medications and the enforcement of more rules to align their California racetracks with the way horse racing is conducted throughout the rest of the world.

Like many other people who follow the sport of horse racing, Nicole Meiner supports the ban of race day medications. However, she struggled to find the correlation between the breakdowns and the use of medications. “The majority of the fatalities happened in training, not on race day, and none of the fatalities to my knowledge had anything to do with Lasix,” she noted. “I’m all for not using race day medication, but I don’t understand what connection they’re making between that and the breakdowns”.

Dinah Moors believed that the ban of race day medications was a step in the right direction for horse racing. “The medication ban has been a long time coming,” she said. “I realize it won't stop all of it. But it sure is a game changer for the horses welfare”.

Some people agree with the ban of race day medications, but do not believe that it was not the right time to try to fix that issue. Jen Paragallo and Megan Johnson both held this opinion. “I think the medication ban was a panic attempt for damage control. Medications need to be addressed but as an entirely separate issue,” Paragallo said. “I don't think the sudden ban at one of the Stronach groups multiple tracks will cause the breakdowns to end, and this is just a deflection from the real cause,” Johnson stated. “I do think it's time for the U.S. to join the rest of the world in running medication free, however”.

A former jockey, trainer, jockey agent, and steward who wished to remain anonymous had a differing opinion on the banning of medications. “Horses have to be medicated. I trained a claiming stable for over 35 years,” they said. “If you can’t treat sore horses, a horse with a bad right ankle will run putting all weight on left side, eventually breaking something on the left. I trained horses that ran until they were 12 or 13 years old. You don’t see that anymore”.

With the recent breakdowns causing emotions to run high, some people have reverted to blaming owners and trainers for running their horses on a track that has seen so many fatalities.

When asked if the trainers and owners are to blame, Nicole Meiner said that she does not believe that they are the problem. “The top trainers and their owners can afford to vacate Santa Anita and even move to a different state on almost a moment’s notice,” she said. “The smaller trainers and owners cannot necessarily afford that, and if they are told the track is safe by professionals, they should be able to trust that and exercise their horses”. “Just as I couldn’t afford to move if my neighborhood suddenly had a spike in crime, not all horsemen have the luxury of being able to leave, and since there is no conclusive proof that the racetrack is to blame, I can’t blame them for staying” Meiner said.

Jen Paragallo answered the question similarly to Meiner, expressing that the responsibility lies on the track, not the people who are based there. “Owners and trainers are not responsible. A racetrack should be assumed safe once it is maintained and raced on daily,” Paragallo said. “If the track is deemed unsafe, it should be shut down and resurfaced”.

Confliction came from others, including Megan Johnson, who thought that owners and trainers are only responsible to an extent. “After the first couple of incidents, I would have pulled any horse away from that track and been hesitant even after the inspections,” she stated. “If Santa Anita continues to refuse an actual solution to their course, I would not be returning with any of my horses. I'm not sure why ANY connections would. Some blame is on them, but it is Santa Anita who continually assures them it's safe”.

Megan Johnson at a farm she worked at with her mother.

Dinah Moors answered this question very differently than the prior two. “Owners and trainers are definitely responsible for the safety of their horses. Santa Anita has done what it needed to do with checking its surface for safety,” she said. “At the end if the day, it comes down to the trainer. They make the decisions regarding these horses”.

The issues surrounding the breakdowns at Santa Anita Park have also brought the current soundness and longevity of our modern racehorses into question. In history, horses ran many more times a season for more seasons than they do today. Are the breakdowns related to the soundness of our horses? Is the breed itself getting weaker?

Meiner agreed that the breed is unsound, but did not believe that soundness issues are the only reason for the recent breakdowns at Santa Anita Park. “I believe that there are soundness concerns with Thoroughbreds.  I also believe that when the majority of an industry’s issues are confined to one place (I know there have been breakdowns at other tracks currently running as well), you have to look at the common denominator,” she pointed out.  “Some people believe that there’s nothing wrong with the breed and it’s completely a track issue, some people believe it’s 100% the horses and the track hasn’t contributed. I don’t think that black and white viewpoint is going to get us anywhere”.

Like Meiner, Moors thinks that the breed is a little unsound, but is working towards its return to its durable days. “To some degree, I do believe that our horses are not as sound as they used to be, due to breeding,” she said. “What's fashionable in the sales ring may not be the most durable. However, a shift has begun in the breeding practices, with the import of stallions, which are known for durability”.

Looming over the deaths at Santa Anita Park is one of the biggest weekends in the sport of racing: The Breeders’ Cup. Some people have been pushing for the Breeders’ Cup to be moved to a different track, saying that it would be a disaster for the sport if a breakdown occurred on such a big weekend. A few also believe Santa Anita’s ban on race day medications will deter a lot of horses from entering in the races. Others believe that the Breeders’ Cup should remain at Santa Anita.

Anymore bad press for the sport could lead to its destruction. On a weekend as big as the Breeders’ Cup where more than just horse racing fans are watching, a breakdown would be a public relations nightmare. Nicole Meiner said just that when she was asked if she thought that the Breeders’ Cup should be moved this year. “From a PR perspective, a Breeder’s Cup at Santa Anita in 2019 would be a huge gamble.  The track, and the industry, would spend the entire weekend seconds from disaster,” Meiner explained. “If anything happened at all, even a thrown shoe resulting in a horse being eased and being totally fine the next day, it would bring all these issues right back into the media, and if, God forbid, someone broke down, it would blow up beyond what we’re currently seeing.  Whether or not the track is the issue, whether or not the sport itself is bad (I have a very strong “no” opinion on that second part), what the public THINKS about this is important, and we can’t afford more bad publicity”.

Johnson also stated that the Breeders’ Cup should be moved if the issue is not resolved soon for the reasons stated above. Paragallo was also on this side of the argument.

Moors and the anonymous source do not believe that the Breeders’ Cup should be moved to another racetrack.

The Breeders’ Cup themselves released a statement on the subject matter, stating that they agree with Stronach’s decision to ban race day medications and follow IFHA standards. “As an organization, the Breeders’ Cup stands for the highest levels of safety and integrity,” the statement reads. “We support the effort by The Stronach Group to propose important changes and we commit to working with the racing industry in California and elsewhere to achieve meaningful reform on a national basis”.

With so many debates occurring between industry leaders, racing fans, and people who work within the industry, one must wonder what can be done to settle it all. How can horse racing become a completely unified sport? Many believe that in order to fully reform and fix the problem within horse racing, a governing body must be formed.

“At this point, a governing body may be the only way to fix it,” Moors stated. “Not all tracks enforce rules and that's a problem, especially for the welfare of our racehorses. These horses deserve the best of care and have their health and safety at heart. Without them we have nothing”.

While most everyone in the sport agrees that our horses need put first, some believe that regulating racing should remain how it is done currently. As of now, each individual state writes their rules regarded animal welfare, banned substances, and betting. In addition to that, each individual track typically has their own set of rules.

Without question, the sport of horse racing as a whole is in need of help. Only time will tell if the Stronach Group and its affiliates are making the right decisions for the welfare of the horses that we cherish. Until then, it is important to remain informed and vocal.

“For the good of the horses and racing as an industry, something needs to be done, and fast. No deflecting. That's all any of us want. Happy, healthy horses loving what they're doing!” - Megan Johnson.

Video: Historic footage of Santa Anita Park. Seabiscuit winning the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap.

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