Santa Anita’s opening weekend reportedly was marred by the death of another racehorse — though the latest fatality happened on Thursday, two days before Saturday’s rescheduled opening day.
The 3-year-old gelding Truest Reward, winless in four starts and trained by Doug O’Neil, fractured his left shoulder on the training track at Santa Anita the morning of December 26, two days before the start of the winter meet,” said Mike Marten of the California Horse Racing Board.
The training track — considered the safest track — was closed to workouts but open for jogging and galloping, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Thursday was supposed to be Santa Anita’s opening day, but forecasts of rain prompted track officials to postpone the first day of its 83rd winter meeting until Saturday, when 11 races were run without incident.
Mike Willman, Santa Anita’s director of publicity, did not confirm or deny the report when reached Sunday by City News Service, but he did express frustration with some media coverage of Saturday’s opening day, which he said focused too much on a relatively small group of animal-rights protesters outside the track and not enough on the success of the day overall, which saw an attendance of 35,085.
“Let’s go with some math — 35,000 vs. 12 protesters,” Willman told CNS. “We had the second-best all time pari-mutuel opening.”
Saturday’s pari-mutuel handle at Santa Anita was just over $19 million.
Santa Anita — and the sport in general — have faced increasing pressure from animal-rights activists amid the death of at least 38 horses at the track over the last year, which included 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Battle of Midway while training at the track on Feb. 23 and Mongolian Groom, who was euthanized after suffering a fatal injury in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 2.
About 40 to 45 activists turned out for a “funeral” and “vigil” Saturday that included a bagpiper for the horses who have died over the past year. Heather Wilson of Horseracing Wrongs — told NBC4, “This is an inherently deadly sport. We all know it is only a matter of time before another horse is going to be killed on this track.”
Craig Fravel, CEO of Racing Operations for The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, told the station, “We have incredible veterinary oversight of these animals, we also have changed medication rules and we’ve got vets watching in the morning and making sure that any horse that shows any signs of lameness are taken care of and looked after and I think we’re confident that everything we’ve done has produced positive results.”
The California Horse Racing Board is set to issue a report next month on the horse deaths.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office concluded Dec. 19 that there was no criminal wrongdoing connected to the deaths, but offered a series of recommendations aimed at improving safety at racetracks in California.
“Horse racing has inherent risks but is a legally sanctioned sport in California,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement. “Greater precautions are needed to enhance safety and protect both horses and their riders.”
The district attorney called on state regulators to develop safety enhancements to reduce horse deaths, including possible enhanced penalties for rules violations, establishment of a tip line for people to report violations or animal cruelty allegations and mandated inspections of racing and training facilities, and reviews of necropsy and veterinary records of horses that have died.
The report also made recommendations aimed at identifying pre-existing conditions in horses that could lead to breakdowns, establishing track- maintenance protocols — including special measures during rain or extreme weather conditions, and creation of “safety codes of conduct” for owners, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians and others who care for horses.
The report noted that officials at Santa Anita have implemented a series of safety-improvement measures that “have reduced the number of fatal racing and training incidents.”
An advertisement for Santa Anita that has run in the Los Angeles Times’ sports section has touted that “California racing is proud to be at the forefront of horse and rider welfare as we introduce revolutionary safety protocols for the modern era. On our tracks every horse comes first.”
Earlier this month, Santa Anita debuted a “cutting-edge” PET Scan machine to provide imaging of the fetlock or ankle joint — the most common area for injuries to occur in Thoroughbreds — without horses having to undergo anesthesia, and said it will help to diagnose pre-existing conditions in Thoroughbred racehorses.
“This state-of-the-art technology reflects a new standard of care within Thoroughbred racing — a standard that puts the health and safety of horses and riders first,” said Belinda Stronach, The Stronach Group’s chairman and president.
Truest Reward’s death was first reported Saturday evening in a story in the Los Angeles Times headlined, “Santa Anita opener goes off without a hitch.”
He was trained by Doug O’Neill, and was winless in four starts.