Finding the cause of 21 equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia, California, is key to the future of not only the venue but also the horse racing industry in general, says a Kentucky-based scientist who’s among those investigating the incidents.
“We ‘re doing the best we can with the information that we have, but we need to do more to improve safety for horses and riders in order to keep racing,” said Mick Peterson, PhD, director of the University of Kentucky’s Ag Equine Programs and a professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering. He’s also the executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, through which he evaluates surface conditions at Santa Anita and other major racetracks nationwide.
From the time Santa Anita’s current race meet began in December 2018 until Feb. 25, 19 racehorses died or were euthanized as the result of injuries sustained while racing or training on Santa Anita’s dirt and turf tracks. In response, management closed the track to racing and training for two days so Peterson and others could evaluate soil samples and thoroughly examine the track’s cushion, pad, and base. However, those investigations revealed no track-related link to the fatalities.
“The ground-penetrating radar verified that all of the materials—silt, clay, and sand, as well as moisture content—were consistent everywhere on this track,” he said. “We saw absolutely nothing that would have contributed to the deaths.”
As a result of the findings, Santa Anita reopened the track to racing and training on Feb. 28. But on March 5, after two more horses sustained fatal injuries, track officials suspended all racing and training on Santa Anita’s dirt and turf courses indefinitely, pending the results of a fresh round of testing.
“It’s challenging,” Peterson said. “We are working with the equine medical director and with pathologists to bring all available information to find out what happened; this has to be a multifaceted approach.”
Track Maintenance a Priority
Peterson said operators of major tracks across the country already take a multipronged approach to track maintenance that includes harrowing during training breaks and between races, daily grading, and watering as needed throughout the day. They also measure moisture content and surface cushion depth daily.
“Track officials also have a weather station on-site where they receive weather reports every 15 minutes,” Peterson said.
As an added precaution, Peterson examines surface samples from 12 major tracks on a monthly basis and conducts on-site surface studies every six months. Results from those studies, as well as reports from the regular track maintenance crew, are added to a database of daily and monthly track conditions.
When injuries or fatalities do happen, officials work with veterinarians performing necropsies to uncover the cause of each incident.
Communication Key to Making Racing Safer
No matter how rigorous a venue’s maintenance plan or how detailed its track safety database, overall safety might ultimately hinge on how well racing industry members communicate with each other, Peterson said.
“For example, trainers need more information about the effects of weather and data from the track surface to help them with their training decisions,” Peterson said. “We also have to communicate with the veterinarians because soundness is a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day challenge.”
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, Peterson believes addressing the Santa Anita situation can determine the future of racing in the U.S.
“If there are issues, they are going to be addressed,” he said. “The safety of horses, jockeys, and exercise people is our number one priority.”
“We must approach this challenge with the knowledge that this is always a process, and in order to continue racing, we need to always strive to get better no matter how good the results.”
Editor’s Note: Update 3/12/19: Santa Anita Park’s one-mile main track reopened for limited training Monday morning as horses jogged and galloped from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., with three interruptions for regularly scheduled renovations.
Additionally, Santa Anita’s six-furlong inner training track was reopened for timed workouts, as 133 horses received official clockings for breezes at distances from two furlongs to six furlongs (three quarters of mile).
Santa Anita Park’s one-mile main track reopened for limited training Monday morning as horses jogged and galloped from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., with three interruptions for regularly scheduled renovations.