SAN JOSE, Calif. – Last year, four days after Christmas, a 3-year-old filly named Blazing Amanda broke from the gate in a race at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif. It was her fourth race in two months, and her 11th that year.
As she rounded the last turn of the race, her left front cannon – the long, thick bone between knee and hoof – shattered, piercing the skin and tearing tendons and ligaments, according to racetrack and necropsy documents obtained by this news organization. Other bones fractured and destroyed the fetlock joint, an equine version of the human wrist.
Blazing Amanda was euthanized on the track.
Much of the racing world’s attention has been focused in recent months on Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, where 30 horses have died since Dec. 30, the latest last weekend as the season closed. The deaths have inspired protests by animal rights activists, who have called for a ban on the sport, and led some lawmakers and industry leaders to champion reforms to increase track safety. On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill giving the California Horse Racing Board more enforcement authority.
Publicity over Santa Anita has left the industry reeling, put owners, trainers and others on the defensive and led some to speculate that the controversy will spell the end of thoroughbred racing.
But Santa Anita isn’t the only track where horses die each year. Blazing Amanda was only one of 18 horses that, a state racing board official said, died at Golden Gate Fields this winter season. From July 2008 to June 2018, 330 horses died at Golden Gate while either racing or training, 26 of them in the 2018 fiscal year. The deadliest period was fiscal year 2009-2010, when 53 horses died running the track. In only four years during that decade did the total number of deaths drop below 30.
Other tracks in California and around the country also have had high numbers of horse deaths. At Los Alamitos in Orange County, for example, 73 horse deaths after training or racing were reported in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, according to fatality statistics from the California Horse Racing Board. And even Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby, has a higher death rate per number of race starts than Santa Anita, according to a database kept by the Jockey Club, the breed registry for all thoroughbreds in the United States.
Animal rights activists and some inside the industry have argued that Santa Anita is different, that more than 20 of the deaths “clustered,” and that something about the track, the trainers who run horses there or the track’s owners is to blame. Both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields are owned by the Stronach Group, a Toronto-based company that owns race tracks in several U.S. states.
A variety of theories have been put forward to explain the high death rate, including greediness on the part of Stronach, with some saying the owners have put profits ahead of animal welfare. The track’s surface also has been proposed as a factor, as have wet conditions on the track after years of drought.
But other industry experts say that Santa Anita does not differ significantly from other American racetracks. They point to broader industry issues such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs, the conditions of tracks across the country and the practice of running young horses that are susceptible to breakdowns because their bones and muscles are not fully developed.
And many in the racing industry believe that it is not so much that more horses are dying as it is that people no longer think the same way about racing.
“What changed more than anything are not the numbers but society and views toward animal welfare,” said Jockey Club President James Gagliano.
“Actions are going to be taken a lot more seriously than they have in the past,” he said. “Everyone is on notice.”
In March, responding to public outcry about deaths at Santa Anita, the state racing board passed a rule to limit the use of crops on tired horses. The Stronach Group took its own steps, tightening rules around drugs and banning several trainers from their California tracks. The most high-profile trainer to be banned was Bay Area Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer. Four of his horses died at Santa Anita this season. Another two died at Golden Gate Fields.
A Santa Anita spokesman directed this news organization to a Stronach statement: “Individuals who do not embrace the new rules and safety measures that put horse and rider safety above all else, will have no place at any Stronach Group racetrack.”
The company declined to answer specific questions, but in a later statement, said its new drug standards now “are consistent with or better than International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities’ medication standards.”
Officials and prosecutors are investigating whether someone or something is to blame for the season’s fatalities. But was the high number of deaths in fact an outlier?
Nearly 10 horses a week, on average, died during racing at U.S. race courses in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. As many probably died in training, experts say, but no official count exists. Gagliano said it is a fatality rate that is anywhere from two and a half to five times greater than Asia, Australia or Europe.
At Santa Anita, the first death of the season hit on December 30. More deaths followed, as heavy rains flooded the track. Experts began questioning whether it was too hard for horses’ fragile legs.
In February, after four deaths in as many days, Santa Anita brought in track engineer Mick Peterson to investigate. Los Angeles, he said, is a hard place to keep safe in winter. Track authorities were forced to decide repeatedly whether to pack down mud or comb the dirt back up.
“Did they do it right every time?” Peterson said. “I don’t know.”
The Stronach Group announced in March that it would close the track for racing and training while they investigated safety and maintenance protocols. The track reopened for racing on March 23, but in the interim, at least some horses trained on the dirt, including Princess Lili B, who broke both front legs on March 14 and was euthanized.
Still, the season total of just 30 horse deaths made it one of Santa Anita’s safest seasons in recent memory.
To Rick Arthur, chief veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board, the early spike of deaths at Santa Anita seemed unusual. He, like many others, linked it to heavy rains.
Is Golden Gate Fields any different? Some in the industry think not.
“There isn’t any difference running horses at either place,” said Jim Cassidy, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, who has entered horses at Golden Gate and Santa Anita for almost three decades. “They are both very safe tracks as long as the horses are fine.”
The vast majority of thoroughbred fatalities occur in horses with pre-existing injuries or other medical conditions, according to research from UC-Davis. Veterinarians there perform a necropsy on every horse that dies at a California track.
Blazing Amanda was felled by the most common fatal injury: a collapsed fetlock, a joint analogous to a person’s wrist. The catastrophe is often preceded by “bucked shins,” trauma caused by horses running too hard before their leg bones are fully developed. As many as 70% of 2-year-olds in training will develop the condition, veterinarians said.
A fatal broken wrist might sound shocking, but horses are built for standing and are impossible to immobilize.
“Even on a waterbed, the weight of the horse compromises the blood supply to the muscles on the bottom,” said Arthur.
Because pre-existing conditions so frequently lead to a breakdown, experts often blame the use of painkillers for catastrophic injuries, because the drugs can mask defects like fractures and keep a horse running, experts said. Many states and tracks enforce strict medication rules through random drug testing and soundness checks by veterinarians.
“It’s one thing to give a ballplayer a painkiller and tell him he’s on it,” said Howard Zucker, a trainer at Santa Anita and formerly the head of the California Thoroughbred Trainers’ track safety committee. “When horses don’t know something is wrong, they go out there and over-perform.”
Breeding for speed over soundness also has contributed to the number of injuries, Zucker added, saying, “There was a time when I couldn’t get my fingers around a cannon bone. Now I can practically encircle the whole leg with my thumb and forefinger.”
This year the Stronach Group has increased the pre-race drug wash-out period for anti-inflammatories and other painkillers and will phase in a ban of race-day use of Lasix, a drug that helps prevent horses from bleeding into their lungs while running at top speeds.
Lasix also is a powerful diuretic that can make a horse lose as much as 30 pounds in urine, theoretically increasing speeds. “Lasix is a performance-enhancing drug cloaked as a therapeutic medication,” the Jockey Club said in a March paper. Horses born after 2017 will not be allowed to race on the drug at Golden Gate or Santa Anita, while doses permitted for older horses have been halved.
Los Gatos horse owner Allen Branch questioned the wisdom of blaming the crisis on Lasix during a California Horse Racing Board meeting earlier this year at Santa Anita.
“Lasix is the ultimate ruse,” he said.
But Jockey Club officials held firm. “Our signature issue is medication reform,” Gagliano said.
At top speeds, a thoroughbred’s hoof touches down around 150 times a minute, each time absorbing as much as 2,500 pounds of force. On a too-hard dirt track, the hoof barely slows down before slamming into a solid surface, like a car hitting a brick wall. On a sloppy track, the foot slips unpredictably, and tendons and muscles have to work harder pushing off the ground again.
The deaths at Santa Anita have led some experts to question whether it’s time to retry an old experiment: replacing the dirt track with a synthetic surface, which in a perfect world has been found to reduce horse deaths.
In 2005, the state racing board mandated that every track switch to synthetic surfaces, but even its supporters recall the move as a disaster. Instead of employing a standard, the tracks installed different kinds of surfaces.
“We did it in extremely flawed fashion,” said Drew Couto, former president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, a group that lobbied heavily for the mandate. “Tracks got frustrated.”
In 2010, the racing board let Santa Anita tear out the synthetic track and reinstall dirt. Other tracks soon followed. Golden Gate Fields is the lone holdout.
Many people in the industry believe the current furor has been driven, in large part, by protesters running an opportunistic campaign against the sport.
April Montgomery, of Burbank, considered herself a racing fan when placing a $10 bet in June 2015 on 4-year-old filly Hugh Knew at Santa Anita. She said she watched in horror as the horse snapped a leg during the race and was euthanized.
Montgomery, a lawyer, said she went home sobbing, feeling ashamed that she had contributed to the horse’s demise. When she returned to Santa Anita the next week, Montgomery said she carried 200 flyers denouncing the death of racing horses and placed them on car windshields and in the women’s restrooms.
Her grassroots campaign has gained momentum as animal rights activists have used social media to share information and rally supporters to protest in front of the Arcadia racetrack this year.
Their efforts led to media outlets such as the L.A. Times and New York Times to report on the deaths all the way through the Triple Crown racing season.
Heather Wilson, of Los Angeles, the West Coast coordinator for horseracingwrongs.com, a website that tries to document every racing death in the United States, said she joined the weekly protests at Santa Anita after learning about the dead horses from a group of women on Facebook.
“I knew horse racing was wrong, but I didn’t know it was this bad,” said Wilson, adding that the protestors did not expect their cause to become part of a national conversation.
Hollendorfer, who lives in Point Richmond, like most in the industry, is frustrated by the heightened criticism over the horse deaths.
“Those folks won’t ever be happy no matter what the number is,” he said of the deaths and injuries. “Their goal is to abolish horse racing.”
Staff reporter David DeBolt contributed.
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