Racing on the edge

By William Weinbaum

Photography by Kyle Grillot

For more than a year, America’s rising anxiety over horse racing deaths has focused on iconic Santa Anita Park in Southern California.
Forty-nine horses died at Santa Anita in the 12 months ending in June 2019.
That total was actually down from some recent years.
There were 64 deaths in 2016-17 and 71 in 2011-12.
But media focus on Santa Anita and anti-racing advocates such as Patrick Battuello turned racing deaths into a national issue.
Battuello’s Horseracing Wrongs website lists more than 1,100 deaths in 2019, led by Pennsylvania’s Parx Racing at 59 and Florida’s Gulfstream Park at 58.
Santa Anita, though, got most of the attention.
Jeff Blea started his career in the early 1980s as a jockey but suffered a serious injury and went to veterinary school.
Track vets are paid by horse owners and work with trainers. Blea describes the team as an “equilateral triangle.”
“Everyone is doing the same thing, basically for the success of the business, but more importantly, for what’s good for the horse,” Blea says.
He rises at 4 a.m. daily to start exams. His practice works with more than a quarter of the horses at Santa Anita.
Of the 49 horses that died, Blea says his practice worked with 14.
The Los Angeles County D.A. found no criminal wrongdoing or singular cause for Santa Anita’s deaths.
According to data from The Jockey Club, 441 thoroughbreds died racing, or 1.53 per 1,000 starts, nationwide in 2019.
Battuello’s count of more than 1,100 deaths last year includes racehorses of all types.
He’s still counting.
Many factors are blamed for racehorse deaths.
There’s track quality, performance-enhancing drugs and insufficient veterinary scrutiny, for starters.
And without uniform data or a national governing body, wide-ranging reform is daunting.
Two members of Congress have reintroduced a bill to establish an independent anti-doping authority.
Federal prosecutors in March accused 27 trainers, veterinarians and others of doping.
Some are pushing the sport’s power-brokers for reforms beyond PEDs.
The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, has instituted changes including limiting the use of whips and the drug Lasix.
Lasix has long been used to counter hemorrhaging from intense exercise, but opponents say it is a dangerous performance-enhancer and has weakened the breed.
A California Horse Racing Board review of Santa Anita deaths found undetected preexisting injuries were a common thread.
Blea says medical advances can help detect such injuries as tiny fractures in horses’ legs.
Increased emphasis on veterinary care is also a vital change, Blea says. (Surgeon Ryan Carpenter pictured.)
As of late April, there were 12 fatalities this year at Santa Anita, closed since March 27 because of the pandemic.
  • Research by John Mastroberardino
  • Additional Photography & Videography by Brett Carlsen, Danny Hardy, Jose Smith and Andrew Zeiderman

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