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Hegarty of DRF.com
The letter, which grew out of a high-level meeting between California racing constituents on Wednesday that was called to address a spate of deaths at Santa Anita since the track opened on Dec. 26, declared that the two tracks would implement a policy of “zero tolerance” for race-day medication, and that the track would adhere to standards set by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. The letter was signed by Belinda Stronach, the president of The Stronach Group, which owns a handful of racetracks across the U.S.
The only raceday medication allowed in the U.S. is furosemide, a diuretic that is used to treat bleeding in the lungs, and the use of the drug on race day is the only significant difference between standards in the U.S. and the IFHA standards, which both allow for trace levels of approximately two dozen therapeutic medications to appear in post-race drug samples provided they are under certain thresholds. The IFHA standards also have slightly lower comparable thresholds for levels of drugs that reduce pain, but both standards do not allow painkillers to be administered on race day.
It was unclear when the ban would be implemented at the two tracks. Officials for the company or the state’s horsemen’s group did not immediately return phone calls. Santa Anita is on a hiatus from racing until March 22, while Golden Gate is currently running.
The letter was released on the same day that a filly suffered a catastrophic injury while training on Santa Anita’s main track. The lightly raced filly became the 22nd horse to die while racing or training at Santa Anita since the meet opened on Dec. 26, a gruesome tally that has upended the racing calendar in Southern California and sent shock waves throughout the racing industry and beyond.
The letter also stated that Santa Anita and Golden Gate would be subject to “revisions” in policies that would require the “complete transparency of all veterinary records”; an increase in out-of-competition testing; an increase in the time required for a horse to be on-site prior to a race; and a “substantial investment” by TSG in diagnostic equipment to detect pre-existing conditions that could put a horse at a higher risk of an injury. Existing stresses on bones are considered to be a leading missed at-risk factor for breakdowns.
In addition, the letter stated that the “it is time to address the growing concern about use of the riding crop,” a reference to the whip carried by jockeys and riders. The letter said that “a cushion crop should only be used as a corrective safety measure,” and said “it is time to make this change.” California currently restricts riders from striking a horse if the horse does not respond to the whip, with violations bringing fines or suspensions.
The letter went on to state that TSG officials have spoken with officials at the California Horse Racing Board about their planned changes and that the board will address “the situation at Santa Anita” at a meeting on March 21, one day prior to the scheduled resumption of racing at Santa Anita.
Furosemide, which is commonly known in racing as Lasix, has been shown to mitigate the severity of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding in the lungs, but its use on race day is controversial worldwide and is opposed by several powerful U.S. racing constituencies. Organizations that represent rank-and-file trainers, however, support the race-day use of the drug.
The restriction on race-day Lasix use could have a significant impact on the number of horses willing to race in California, a somewhat isolated circuit that draws the vast majority of its runners from within the state. Since the start of this year’s meet, officials at Santa Anita and the Stronach Group have been attempting to increase field size at the track, in the hopes of increasing the amount of wagering on the track’s races, but the letter appeared to indicate that the track was willing to accept the changes that might come about because of a ban.
“We have arrived at a watershed moment,” the letter stated. “We are taking a stand and fully recognize just how disruptive this might be. … We recognize this will impact our field size as horses and horsemen adjust to this new standard. There will be horses that will not be able to race because they have required medication to do so. For those horses, we are prepared to dedicate the capital required to rehabilitate, re-train, re-home and provide aftercare for them. They deserve nothing less.”
Because race-day furosemide use is legal under California rules, the company would need to enforce the restriction as a house rule, which is a term to describe regulations put in place by racetracks as a condition of entering races. Under the leadership of the company’s founder and former president, Frank Stronach – who is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Belinda, his daughter, over control of the company’s assets – The Stronach Group carded a handful of Lasix-free races for 2-year-olds at its Gulfstream Park in South Florida beginning late in 2015, but those races were discontinued after only a year.
To date, there have been no studies that have linked race-day furosemide use in horses with breakdowns. Opponents of the race-day use of the drug have said that the regular use of Lasix could weaken bones because of the effects of diuretics overall on mineral retention, especially calcium, but no rigorous studies of the effects of Lasix use on bone strength have been published. Supporters contend that the use of Lasix on race day is a humane response to a common problem afflicting racehorses.
Earlier on Thursday, two U.S. legislators, Rep. Paul Tonko and Rep. Andy Barr, reintroduced a bill to the House of Representatives that would appoint a private, non-profit company, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, as the national overseer of horseracing’s drug policies and enforcement. The bill, which also includes a ban on the race-day use of Lasix, is supported by The Stronach Group, but its reintroduction on the same day at the announcement was seen as coincidental to the increasingly urgent situation at Santa Anita.
Last year, Frank Stronach withheld his support for the bill until its sponsors added the prohibition on race-day Lasix use. The legislation has been introduced in several iterations over the past several years, but has never advanced to a vote.
The 22 deaths at Santa Anita have drawn outsized attention to the racetrack and the overall racing industry since late February, when the multiple graded stakes winner Battle of Midway broke down during a workout, becoming the 18th horse to die while racing or training at the track. Three more horses broke down in the days that followed, despite a brief break from racing and training to conduct evaluations of the racing surface that turned up no “irregularities.”
Santa Anita announced an indefinite cessation of racing and training on March 5 to conduct another examination of the main track after that fatality, this time led by a former racing-surface consultant, Dennis Moore, who had been let go by The Stronach Group at the end of 2018. Earlier this week, the track allowed training to resume, only to have another filly break down on Thursday morning, sending new ripples throughout an already anxious racing industry.
Breakdowns can be linked to dozens of legitimate factors, but commentators both inside and outside of racing have focused on the impact of this winter’s rainy weather on Santa Anita’s racing surface and on assertions that U.S. racehorses are over-medicated, despite restrictions put in place in recent years that have put greater restrictions on the use of drugs that can mask pain during a race or cause joint damage. Those restrictions are not in place for horses that are training, although regulators do have the power to conduct out-of-competition testing of horses at any time.
Racing regulators in California have not yet issued reports or statements identifying any factors that are common to the horses that have suffered catastrophic injuries. Under California’s racing regulations, any horse that dies at a track or training center is necropsied to determine factors that could have contributed to the death. The process includes testing horses for legal and illegal medications and conducting detailed analysis of radiographs of the horses’ limbs.
Anti-racing groups have seized on the deaths to express their misgivings about horse racing in general, and that has led to increased pressure on Santa Anita to show that it is responding to the spate of injuries. Many anti-racing groups and animal-welfare organizations consistently identify the use of drugs in racing as one of their greatest concerns about the sport.
The open letter distributed by The Stronach Group included a quote from Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who said the organization “thanks Santa Anita for standing up to all those who have used any means to force injured or unfit horses to run.” Horses running at Santa Anita and nearly all other racetracks are subject to race-day examinations by veterinarians who evaluate the horses for soundness.
“This groundbreaking plan will not bring back the 22 horses who have died recently, but it will prevent the deaths of many more and set a new standard for racing that means less suffering for Thoroughbreds,” Guillermo was quoted as saying in the letter.
Golden Gate has not had a problem with racetrack deaths this year, and the track consistently ranks among the tracks in the U.S. with the lowest fatality rates in the nation. The track is one of the few in the U.S. that still uses an artificial surface, which, according to data that the industry began collecting in 2009 to record racetrack injuries, generally have significantly lower fatality rates than dirt tracks. Santa Anita switched back to a dirt main track late in 2010 after racing on an artificial surface since the fall meet of 2007.