Horse racing is among America’s oldest sports and perhaps the only one ever run out of the White House: Andrew Jackson operated a stable there during his presidency. Yet the multibillion-dollar industry is reeling as the Kentucky Derby approaches, with the death of yet another thoroughbred at the premier Santa Anita Park in California amplifying anxiety over whether the sport will continue in the state.
On Sunday, a gelding named Arms Runner fell during a race, sustaining a catastrophic injury to its right front leg that required the horse to be euthanized. It was the 23rd equine fatality since Dec. 26, and it came on only the third day of racing at the track since it had halted competition on March 5.
“I’m concerned about the publicity we’ve been getting,” said Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer who won the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015 and with Justify last year. “This is our March Madness. But we’re having the wrong kind of madness. We feel like we’re all under the gun. We should be under the gun. You can’t defend a horse getting hurt.”
The track, in Arcadia, Calif., northeast of Los Angeles, had been closed to study why it had become so deadly, as well as to begin putting in place aggressive, wide-ranging drug and safety protocols. The spike was startling considering that in 2017, there were 20 deaths in a total of 8,463 starts over a span of 122 racing days at Santa Anita, according to Jockey Club data.
The racetrack, however, will remain open after the most recent fatality and on Saturday will host one of its signature races, the Santa Anita Derby, an important steppingstone for 3-year-old horses hoping to line up for the Kentucky Derby on May 2.
“We know what the stakes are and understand that we might be the place that kills horse racing in California,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns the track. “Yes, we are worried, but we are confident that the track is safe and have gone the extra mile on rules that put us more in line with the rest of the world. We got to keep our doors open.”
The horse deaths have become a rallying point for the animal rights movement, which is particularly strong in California, where it would take 600,000 signatures on a petition to prompt a ballot initiative on whether horse racing should continue to exist. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to form an independent panel to investigate how the track, breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys and veterinarians treat the horses.
“The veterinarians and trainers and track have not done all that they can to protect the horses,” said Kathy Guillermo, a PETA vice president.
Representative Judy Chu, Democrat of California, wants Congress to examine the racetrack, which is in her district, and the sport in general. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office has already begun an investigation.
But the uproar resonates far beyond California. With nearly $12 billion bet annually at North American racetracks and more than a $1 billion generated in breeding sheds and sales auctions, a ban on thoroughbred racing, or even a serious blow to the sport, could put tens of thousands of people out of work.
“I think it’s pretty depressing and fraught with danger for the sport,” said Stuart Janney III, the chairman of the Jockey Club and a breeder and owner of the 2013 Kentucky Derby champion, Orb. “But I also think it is the valley we have to pass through to get to a better place. We can’t let these tragedies be in vain.”
There has been plenty of recrimination. Trainers and owners have accused Ritvo and the Stronach Group of cutting costs and prodding them to run their horses more often so there will be fuller fields and more revenue.
The Stronach Group recently established restrictions on medications and a ban on whips, moves implying that blame rested on trainers and owners for unsavory practices in the pursuit of purse money. The restrictions include banning the use of Lasix, a diuretic that is used to stop pulmonary bleeding but that has also been found to enhance performance, and increasing the limits on legal therapeutic anti-inflammatories, joint injections, shock wave therapy and anabolic steroids.
“Maybe we are where we are because racing has become too much of a business and not enough of a sport,” Ritvo said.
No one expects the scrutiny to let up. The Louisville Courier-Journal last week proclaimed Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, one of the “deadliest racetracks in America.” The newspaper reported that the track had lost 43 thoroughbreds to racing injuries since 2016, an average of 2.42 per 1,000 starts, which was 50 percent higher than the national average during the same span.
The Jockey Club’s Janney said the sport needed to break free of some of its history in order survive.
For decades, horse racing has experienced spikes in fatalities without adopting significant changes. The Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019 was introduced in Congress last month by Representatives Paul Tonko, Democrat of New York, and Andy Barr, Republican of Kentucky. The bill would create a private, independent authority responsible for developing and administering a nationwide antidoping and medication control program for horse racing.
“I think it has a better chance to pass today,” Janney said. “Every sport, every industry, has to change with the times. This is a scary time, but every undertaking is a result of getting a glimpse at the downside of staying where you are.”