The unusually excessive frequency of horse deaths at the Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California has prompted widespread scrutiny, protests from animal rights activists, and an investigation by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
On Saturday, Oct. 19, a 3-year-old racehorse named Satchel Paige became the 34th horse to die at the track since December. The gelding was euthanized after his left front ankle sustained an open fracture.
In September, another 3-year-old colt named Emtech fell to the ground after breaking both front legs in a horrific injury in the midst of a race at Santa Anita’s fall meet.
Given the circumstances, the track veterinarian, Dana Stead, made the decision to euthanize the colt on the track behind a green screen.
“As is protocol at Santa Anita, we will open an immediate review into what factors could have contributed to Emtech’s injury,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinarian for the Stronach Group, Fox News reported. “Santa Anita will work closely with the California Horse Racing Board and will continue to brief our stakeholders and all of our constituents.”
Benson added that the horse will undergo a necropsy, a requisite for all on-track deaths.
Emtech’s jockey, Mario Gutierrez, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, was thrown from the horse during the incident but sustained no injuries.
The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), whose mission is to ensure the integrity, viability, and safety of the state’s horse racing industry, is coordinating an investigation with local law enforcement.
“Investigators with the California Horse Racing Board have been working with investigators with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office exploring all aspects of those fatalities,” Mike Marten, the Public Information Officer for the CHRB, told The Epoch Times. “The DA’s Office will be making the final report.”
Marten further explained that the CHRB is presently unaware of the DA’s Offices’ timeline and that the nature of the ongoing investigation prevents them from discussing or disclosing any details at this time.
Santa Anita Park closed for three weeks last March after nearly two dozen horses perished.
While the horses at Santa Anita are suffering from escalating — often deadly — injuries at an alarming rate, horse fatalities are not limited to this racetrack alone. The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database reported that almost 10 horses die per week on racetracks in the United States.
The same cannot be said for racetracks in Europe and Asia. In a comprehensive examination of Santa Anita Park, the New York Times suggested that strictly enforced regulations against performance-enhancing drugs in those countries may account for the fact that the horse fatality rate in the U.S. is two and a half to five times greater.
Records indicate that the Santa Anita track has allowed trainers who have received citations for using performance-enhancing drugs. Experts believe that drugs of this nature are a leading cause in horse fatalities, because they enable horses to run despite whatever pain and injuries they incur. In addition, these drugs increase the animals’ speed and strength to an unnatural extent, which places more stress on their limbs.
In June, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill granting the CHRB the authority to suspend or move racing events in the event of inclement weather or dangerous track conditions.
“What happened last year was unacceptable, and all of the excuses be damned,” Newsom told the Times. “We own that going into the next season, and we’re going to have to do something about it…Incredible abuses to these precious animals and the willingness to just to spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace.”
Animal rights activists share Newsom’s outrage. Protestors filed a free speech lawsuit against the Stronach Group, the owner of the park, after being barred from the track by Santa Anita staff last March.
The suit alleged that park guards physically assaulted the protestors. After a hearing last Thursday, one plaintiff, Heather Wilson, claimed that the guards put her in a headlock and ripped her camera away from her chest.
The hearing concluded with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin, Jr. stating his view that the Santa Anita venue is private property. Therefore, in this case, the owner’s property rights eclipse the protestor’s free speech rights.
“I respectfully disagree with the court,” Matthew Strugar, the attorney who’s representing the protestor, told The Epoch Times. “Across decades, other courts have found that California Constitution protects speech rights in the parking lots of large entertainment venues, including Anaheim Stadium, the Cow Palace in Daley City, and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.”
Strugar added, “We believe that the same rules should apply to Santa Anita, but unfortunately the judge disagreed with us.”
In terms of moving forward, Strugar said they are still weighing their options for next steps.
“This was just a request for an early resolution,” he clarified. “So the case continues nonetheless.”
The activists sought a preliminary injunction in order to secure the right to protest during the Breeders’ Cup, which is scheduled to take place at Santa Anita on Nov. 1 and 2. This series of races will draw an estimated 118,000 fans.