ORANGE, Calif.—Twenty-nine horses have died this year at Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County, California, triggering a 10-day probation at the track and a new safety plan for horse welfare.
“These animals are seen as nothing more than running piggy banks,” Heather Wilson, a local activist, told The Epoch Times. “It’s magnificent watching these horses run, but when you know what’s actually behind it—I mean, these horses are in their stalls, their 12-by-12 stalls, 23 hours a day. They’re confined most of their lives.”
Alan F. Balch, executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers, disputes that characterization.
“Horses are not in their stalls all day,” Balch told The Epoch Times via email. “Active horses are likely to be out of their stalls more of the day, whether for walking, turning out in a larger outdoor space, grazing, and their daily planned exercise either on the track or around the barn.”
He added that the 12-by-12 standard stall size “has come to be the norm all over the world, because it’s large enough for a horse to be very comfortable moving around, taking a siesta lying down, getting back up, putting his head and neck outside to look around.”
Of the deaths at Los Alamitos this year, 19 occurred during racing or training, according to the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). The other 10 were from gastrointestinal issues and other types of illnesses.
CHRB declared a 10-day probationary period starting July 10, during which Los Alamitos management was ordered to come up with an action plan to address horse welfare concerns. CHRB would then decide whether to suspend the track’s operations.
“There has to be a serious review of policies and procedures at Los Alamitos,” said CHRB chairman Gregory L. Ferraro at a July 10 emergency meeting. “I think there is a culture there amongst the practicing veterinarians and trainers that are pushing the envelope when it comes to the safety of the horses.”
During the 2018–19 season, 144 racehorses died statewide, according to CHRB. The previous three seasons saw 138, 205, and 206 horse deaths, respectively.
About 30 miles from Los Alamitos is Santa Anita Park, where 23 horses died between December 2018 and March 2019. A CHRB investigation at Santa Anita found no illegal medications or procedures. A concurrent Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office investigation “did not find evidence of criminal animal cruelty or unlawful conduct” connected to the deaths.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill last June granting CHRB the authority to suspend racing events due to inclement weather or dangerous track conditions.
“What happened last year was unacceptable,” Newsom told The New York Times in October. “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.”
New Safety Plan at Los Alamitos
Los Alamitos announced a new Equine and Rider Safety Enhancement Plan on July 20, the final day of its probation. CHRB accepted the plan and has allowed the track to continue its operations.
An additional veterinarian will be on duty each morning, acting as a “roving observer” of all activities.
“The idea is to have another set of eyes on the track and in the barn area,” Mike Marten, public information officer for CHRB, told The Epoch Times.
A new security steward will monitor veterinary and barn practices. All tracks already have a safety steward, a similarly titled position, Marten said. But the addition of a security steward will close some gaps in stewardship at the track.
“The difficulty at Los Alamitos has been the practice of training in the mornings and racing at nights, making it difficult for the safety steward to do both tasks,” Marten said. “The addition of a security steward will mean a qualified individual will be assigned to monitor compliance with Los Alamitos’s protocols in the stable area.”
The plan also establishes an Entry Review Panel of three experts who have the power to dismiss, or “scratch,” horses that are deemed unfit to run in races. In addition, any future death on the grounds will trigger a fatality review conducted by the Los Alamitos Quarter Horse Racing Association.
“The CHRB is committed to reducing fatalities at California racetracks and training facilities,” Marten added. “To that end, the CHRB, in conjunction with the California racing industry, has implemented and is in the continuing process of implementing dozens of safety initiatives to protect horses and riders.”
Wilson said these measures won’t fix the problems.
“Let’s be honest, it’s window dressing,” she said. “Horse racing cannot be reformed. It can’t be fixed. It can’t be made safe. There will always be fatalities.”
“People that are pro-racing are so convinced that these horses are so well cared for,” Wilson said. “They’re well cared for … just to get them through the next race. Horses are herd animals, they graze, they’re social animals. And when you race them, you strip all of those instincts and desires.”
She called horse racing a “blood sport.”
Balch, who is based at the Santa Anita race track, said, “No horse anywhere gets better care than a horse at the race track. In fact, race track care sets the standard for any horse in any activity, and that includes in nature, where a horse is a prey animal whose principal defense is flight.”
“Horses are properly cared for and treated in exemplary fashion,” he added. “The tracks and the regulatory authority set rules and standards which have been continually improved and enforced in California since the early 1930s.”