UPDATED: Cardiac Failure Fatalities Spike in California, Baffert Barn

by | 04.10.2013 | 4:49pm

What is causing a significant increase in sudden deaths by cardiac failure among horses at California racetracks, and why were traces of rodenticide, or rat poison, found in post-mortem toxicology tests of two of the deceased horses?

The California Horse Racing Board's Medication and Track Safety Committee discussed the sudden death of horses at a meeting in Arcadia, Calif., Wednesday. Horsemen throughout the region have been talking about it, too, specifically about the rash of sudden deaths of runners from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

UPDATED: Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, said the number of what mandatory necropsy reports call non-musculoskeletal “sudden deaths” has been relatively constant over the last three years: 20 sudden death in fiscal year 2010-11; 19 in 2011-12; and 17 to date for 2012-13 (the fiscal year ends June 30).

However, a February CHRB report did point out an increase in sudden deaths attributed to cardiac failure, which has been a concern among Southern California trainers: there were 11 in 2011-12, up from four in 2008-09 and six in 2010-11. The number of cardiac failure sudden deaths for the current fiscal year is not available.

These deaths are unrelated to horses euthanized as a result of musculoskeletal injuries.

The CHRB has not made public details on the names of the horses or the owners or trainers, but the Paulick Report learned through public record requests that seven of the sudden death horses over the past 18 months were trained by Bob Baffert. Most of the deaths of Baffert runners, with the exception of two horses who collapsed after a race, occurred during training hours. All of the Baffert horse deaths took place at the track now known as Betfair Hollywood Park

The Paulick Report has acquired necropsy reports of the seven sudden death horses, which include detailed analysis of body organs, tissue results of toxicology and drug testing. Two horses were identified by Equibase charts and two others through published reports.

The first Baffert horse to die suddenly in the 2011-12 fiscal year as reported by the CHRB was a 2-year-old male who collapsed while galloping at Hollywood Park on the morning of Nov. 4, 2011. His death was attributed to “likely failure of the cardiac conduction system,” according to a necropsy report from the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory System. A second came three weeks later when Irrefutable, a 5-year-old son of Unbridled's Song, collapsed after finishing second in a six-furlong race at Hollywood Park. Heart failure and/or exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage were listed as the likely cause of death. A third sudden death occurred Jan. 6, 2012, again at Hollywood Park, when Uncle Sam, a 4-year-old son of Tapit, collapsed near the three-eighths pole during a morning workout. Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis was listed as a possible cause of death, but the report called it a “puzzling” case.

Kaleem Shah owned all three of the aforementioned Baffert-trained horses, based on comments in the necropsy reports.

When Mike Pegram's homebred 4-year-old El Corredor colt CJ Russell died from apparent heart failure after the finish of a Hollywood Park race June  15, 2012, the necropsy report noted “fourth horse to collapse/die for this trainer in less than one year.”

A fifth death occurred Aug. 20, 2012, when a 2-year-old male at Hollywood Park died from heart failure while training.

A sixth death occurred on Dec. 21, 2012, when a 3-year-old gelding galloping in the morning at Hollywood Park went down, succumbing to what the necropsy report said was a “massive abdominal/thoracic cavity hemorrhage.” Toxicology tests discovered trace amounts of diphacinone, an agent in rodenticide, or rat poison. The report on the death called this an “important finding” but did not elaborate.

The most recent Baffert sudden death, the seventh since November 2011, happened March 14, 2013, at Hollywood Park, again during training hours, when a 5-year-old mare collapsed and died from what the report described as severe pulmonary edema. Based on information in a published Daily Racing Form report, it is believed Miner's Daughter is the mare who died.

Baffert did not respond to voice or text messages sent to his cell phone Wednesday afternoon.

Sudden deaths of horses are thought to be rare, a scientific study said. Several trainers with more than 30 years of experience interviewed by the Paulick Report spoke warily of the situation. None of trainers lost more than three horses to sudden death during their entire careers, they said.

During the Medication and Track Safety Committee meeting Wednesday, it was revealed that trace levels of rat poison were discovered in toxicology tests of two of the horses who died suddenly, according to Mike Marten, an information officer with the CHRB. Marten said the CHRB interviewed pest-control companies that provided services to the Southern California tracks and that the type of rodenticide used by those companies did not match what was found in the toxicology tests. He also said Dr. Francico Uzal of the University of California-Davis and the CHRB's medical director, veterinarian Rick Arthur, told the committee that the rat poison could not be confirmed as the cause of death.

The second horse with trace amounts of a rodenticide, brodifacoum (an anti-coagulant), was the MIke Mitchell-trained, Daniel Capen-owned Truism, who collapsed and died in the stretch of a March 2, 2013, Santa Anita race. Cause of death was severe internal bleeding.

Note: The original version of this article, including the headline, referred to a spike in sudden deaths of horses racing at California tracks and erroneously compared cardiac failure deaths in two years with overall sudden deaths in 2011-12. There was, in fact, an increase in the number of horses dying suddenly from heart failure, but the total number of sudden deaths (which include a variety of causes) is relatively unchanged.

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