Santa Anita race horse deaths: Drugs, weather and racing horses too young contributed to rise in fatalities, say experts

Santa Anita race horse deaths: Drugs, weather and racing horses too young contributed to rise in fatalities, say experts

A recent investigation painted a horrifying picture of the Santa Anita Park where more than 60 horses have been euthanized at the popular racetrack since 2018. Monday, May 20, marked the second horse's death in a matter of four days when a first-time starter named Spectacular Music pulled up during a race on Sunday, May 19, and suffered a pelvis injury. Before that, on Friday, May 17, Commander Coil, an unraced three-year-old gelding who was only galloping, was put to sleep after suffering a shoulder-area injury during a light training session. Before that, it was Arms Runner, who went down after a sprint in March.

Experts on the subject think that there may be a number of contributing factors to this tragedy. "We are aware that issues with the track surface have received a great deal of attention, however other tracks around the country have also experienced similar spates of high mortality during meets. We do know that the overwhelming majority of American racehorses race with drugs in their systems, and that when injuries are masked or performances are enhanced by legal or illegal drugs, horses are at a greater risk for injuries. This is a major contributor to breakdowns and fatalities nationwide," Valerie Pringle from the Humane Society of the United States and Campaign Manager for Equine Protection told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). 

In this Thursday, March 28, 2019, file photo, a few horses and riders are seen on the track while members of the California Horse Racing Board weigh new safety and medication rules in the wake of 22 horse deaths at Santa Anita Park, during a meeting at the track in Arcadia, Calif. The Stronach Group are the owners of Santa Anita Park that was the site of 23 horse deaths over a span of three months. (AP Photo/Amanda Lee Myers, File)

The injuries that occurred to both Spectacular Music and Commander Coil are rare injuries but they both have one thing in common — they occur when horses are started too young and worked too strenuously, said Elizabeth Zarkos, Ph.D. President and Founder of Hanaeleh, an Orange County Horse Rescue organization. "If a horse is racing at two, they are started as a one-year-old, or perhaps even younger. A horse does not stop growing until five or six years old, so a three-year-old horse is still just a baby developmentally. When they are pushed to the training regimen of the racetrack, injuries like these are going to occur," she said.

However, she added that the weather could also possibly play a role in these incidents. The reason why Santa Anita might have more deaths can be attributed in part to the track itself, she said. "Del Mar is relatively close to the ocean, so as the weather changes from cold in the morning to warmer in the afternoon, the track could go from very fast and hard to soft and mushy.  When it rained quite a bit this year, the track was coated to prevent the dirt from soaking in too much water. Unfortunately, this coating made the track that much harder, potentially creating microfractures as horses ran on the track. While one or two runs would not create a break, multiple runs could end up breaking a horse's leg," she said. 


She also pointed out that whips could attribute to the injuries. Until last month, jockeys were allowed to use whips to make the horses run faster. "These animals are already going between 35-40 mph. They push the horses to run faster and faster at the expense of the horse's physical capabilities," she said, adding, "Trainers at Santa Anita are pushed to race the horses by the racetrack — some trainers may feel pressured to race the horses who are injured or who are not physically ready to race. Finally, doping is a huge issue at the track. Trainers use Lasix on the horses as well as any number of other drugs. To be fair, these drugs are used across the United States, so it is not unique to Santa Anita — but somehow it all culminates to create a situation in which horses die," she said.

"The horse racing industry also has to start acknowledging that these deaths are not acceptable, and, instead of defending these fatal injuries as a by-product the sport, the industry should be proactive in working to find a way to eliminate them", she said.

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