After the deaths of nearly 2 dozen racehorses at Santa Anita Park, a pair of California legislators want answers and they’re taking action.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat, and Adam Gray, a Merced Democrat and a member of the Assembly, are launching a joint oversight hearing on horse racing safety and introduced legislation that authorizes the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) to suspend racing during dangerous conditions.
“This common sense bill is one part of the solution, and Chairman Gray and I will be convening a hearing to determine whether there are additional steps the industry or the state should take to enhance safety,” according to a statement from Dodd. “It’s clear that state regulators need the power to act swiftly and decisively when exigent safety concerns arise.”
If enacted into law, Senate Bill 469 authorizes the CHRB to consider temporarily closing the track in an emergency meeting. The board would not be subject to a 10-day meeting notice; however, it still must post notice of the emergency meeting to the public and media. The bill is scheduled for its first hearing Tuesday, April 23.
“Both Sen. Dodd and I believe that California’s horse racing industry must be willing to accept and adopt forward thinking solutions to address long-standing issues and debates,” according to a statement from Gray. “This hearing will give the committees an opportunity to conduct a thorough review of the industry’s safety track record, and highlight new and potentially necessary reforms to improve safe racing conditions.”
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It’s not clear why the deaths of 23 Thoroughbreds have occurred since Dec. 26, 2018. Many blame poor track conditions as a result of a large increase of rain that Southern California received in January and February. However, track experts could find no direct correlation and deemed it safe after several inspections. The number of deaths at Santa Anita was 10 during the same time frame last year.
“It brings to mind the question on why we are not suspending horse racing when emergency action is necessary,” according to a statement from Assembly member Ed Chau, an Arcadia Democrat and a co-author of the bill. “This legislation will empower the board to take action more swiftly in order to protect the welfare of both horses and riders, and is an important step in a series of ongoing reforms.”
Others, including The Stronach Group — owners of Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields — took aim at riding crops and race day medication. Group President Belinda Stronach declared a zero tolerance policy on riding crops and medication on race day at both tracks in mid-March.
“The Stronach Group is fully committed to modernizing our sport in a way that prioritizes the welfare and safety of horses and riders above all,” according to an April 4 statement from the group. “The fact that horses running in America are five times more likely to suffer a catastrophic injury than horses running at international venues is unacceptable and must immediately change.”
The zero tolerance didn’t last long, though. Riding crops will be used during races Friday, April 12, according to the Jockeys’ Guild.
“We will comply, for the time being, with the request from the Thoroughbred Owners of California [TOC] to not proceed with the jockeys not using riding crops during the races at Santa Anita Park on Friday, April 12,” according to a statement from Terry Meyocks, the Jockeys’ Guild president and CEO. “For the past month we have received virtually no support from industry organizations in California until contacted by the TOC in the last day and a half. In the interest of moving forward to create a safer environment for both equine and human athletes, we have agreed to work with the TOC to come to a mutually agreeable position on riding crop usage in California to be submitted to the CHRB.”
The Guild is asking jockeys at Santa Anita and Golden Gate to use the new 360 GT riding crop, which was recently developed “in the interest of safeguarding horses and riders.”
The state legislators’ actions come a week after Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Judy Chu, both California Democrats, called for suspending races at Santa Anita until “the cause or causes” of the deaths of nearly 2 dozen horses are determined.
“The death of a single horse is a tragedy, but as a lifelong lover of horses, I’m appalled that almost 2 dozen horses have died in just 4 months,” according to a letter that Feinstein send to Chuck Winner, chairman of the CHRB.
Although Feinstein applauded the adoption of rules to restrict the use of race-day medications and use of a crop, she asked whether other changes are being considered.
“While these are positive initial steps, please let me know whether the Board is considering other actions that have been proposed by trainers and animal welfare advocates, including the complete elimination of medications such as Lassie and the use of synthetic track surfaces,” according to the letter. “In your view, would these or other steps be reasonable measures to prevent horse injuries and death?”