The Whats And Whys Behind Santa Anita’s Nightmare Spring Season

by | 09.25.2019 | 11:00am
Santa Anita's main track undergoing maintenance in March, 2019

Santa Anita is preparing to launch its fall meet under more scrutiny than ever before. As racing ticks down the weeks to this year's Breeders' Cup, some racing fans are still wondering – what happened to cause the much-publicized spike in equine fatalities last spring, and what's the thinking behind the policies the track put in place to prevent a repeat occurrence this fall?

After the 22nd racing fatality at Santa Anita in March, Stronach Group chairman and president Belinda Stronach released an open letter to the industry, outlining a number of changes in house policies that went into effect toward the end of the spring season. Several of those policies were also in place at Del Mar, which saw no racing fatalities this summer.

We checked in with Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group, to get her perspective on the events of last spring now that the dust has settled. 

Looking back at the necropsy reports, do you think we know the cause(s) of the increase in fatalities last spring?
DB: First of all, we haven't seen any of the necropsies yet because it's still an ongoing investigation [by the Los Angeles County district attorney]. We don't get eyes on them until the public does. 

If I had to guess what the necropsies will say, I think it will basically show that each horse had an individual issue, sometimes a preexisting condition. At the end of the day I will be very surprised if there is a single common link between the catastrophic injuries. 

So as The Stronach Group has tried to implement better safety regulations, has it been a matter of deciding what the track can do better, rather than troubleshooting a specific set of known risk factors?
Yes. We didn't have the luxury of time to say, 'This is the cause, these are the things we can do to fix that cause.' We didn't have the luxury of hindsight. And at the end of the day we won't know what was more or less effective. I think given the meet that they had at Del Mar, I think we can be pretty confident that we've at least made some change in horse racing safety. But I think there are going to be a lot of questions and it'll be hard to say to another jurisdiction, 'These are the things that were more helpful, these were the things that were less helpful.' We just had to enact a slate of reforms. 

We're going to continue to see what other reforms might be effective. Dr. Tim Parkin, veterinarian and epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow, said at the 2016 Jockey Club Welfare and Safety Summit that just 35 percent of the decline in equine fatalities from 2015 to 2016 was due to known factors. Another 65 percent of the change was attributed to as-yet unidentified factors. We have to keep chipping away and I think even if it's a small percentage change of breakdowns, we still have to do everything we can to get that number to zero. 

A lot of people have questioned the announcement that the track wanted to phase out Lasix use, asking what that's got to do with fatal breakdowns. What was the philosophy on that?
Of course we know that Lasix has nothing to do with breakdowns. There's no study that shows that. We get it. But at the end of the day, people don't want to hear that horses need this drug to stop bleeding when they're racing. People feel those horses shouldn't run. I understand, I do. 

We have to make the choices for these horses that you would if it were a horse you had an attachment to. Because the public does have an attachment to them. Whether we like it or not, the public has a voice and you can't put that genie back in the bottle.

What about the whip rules?
I know there is a commissioner who firmly believes there was a jockey who was whipping a horse as it was running down the stretch when it obviously had an issue. Instead of pulling the horse up, which most responsible riders would do, they felt the rider drove that horse to break down. 

It's another public perception thing. We say these horses love to run, they have races in their fields in Kentucky every day, but then there's a whip involved on the track? We can't ignore public perception anymore. 

Improved vet record transparency was on Belinda Stronach's list of improvements. What does that mean on a practical level, since the California Horse Racing Board already reviews daily treatment sheets on all horses at its facilities?
Yes, and that's very helpful, but one of the things we think is very important is that the horse's records follow the horse. I don't think we have to transfer the record of every sedation a horse gets to be shod, but there are core things like vaccines, surgeries, if the horse a cribber, has the horse had corticosteroids or other intra-articular injections, has the horse been injured? Those kinds of significant events should not be hidden from the next person to train and own that horse. The CHRB right now is in the process of approving a rule that would require corticosteroid injection records to be forwarded from one trainer to the next in the event of a claim. Originally, as staff presented that rule, it was a much broader form to include things like vaccinations. When the public comment period opens, it is our intention to submit a request that they go to the original form. 

I don't necessarily know that every medication choice has to be public to anyone, but I certainly feel like the regulators should have eyes on the records, which they do, but also the people working with the horse should, too. 

What was the thinking behind backing up corticosteroid (and other) drug administration times?
When we originally enacted the corticosteroid policy, the whole idea was to give people the opportunity to work the horse before they race it and after they treat it to see how it comes out of the work and make sure that it's truly appropriate. It's much easier to ease a horse in a work or to say a horse doesn't feel right and shouldn't get in the gate than it is in racing. There are obviously other pressures and things we worry about there. 

The thresholds were enacted to allow seven-day treatments. The problem was, we know people were seeing very small amounts of multiple corticosteroids to continue to treat three days out [from a race]. Basically, they were doing things to get around the spirit of the rule. 

The other thing we found out was people weren't working horses that close anymore. What they were doing was working them at eight days out, making a decision on treating them, and treating them. Which again, sort of circumvented the whole purpose behind the rule. 

We looked around the world and said the most conservative rule is basically 14 days. We know it is difficult, if not impossible, to regulate that type of a restriction in the laboratory. If you find a corticosteroid in either blood or urine (with the exception of methylprednisolone) in a post-race test, you know they've treated in 14 days. They've treated in far fewer than 14 days. So the issue becomes, if we're going to ensure that these horses have not been treated in 14 days, we have to set a 14-day prohibition. That involves things like having to out-of-competition test horses after trainers say they've been treated; we've been considering putting horses on a veterinarian's list or an ineligible list after they've been treated. We're going to have to be very creative in how we do this. I know the CHRB has looked at vet records and scratched horses based on the 14-day prohibition because they're not eligible to race. 

With the non-steroidals, when I was at the RMTC we were in the process of trying to change the rules. We had to prove to the board that these medications had an effect at [when given up to 24 hours pre-race]. The key time is when the regulatory vet is in the stall at 18 hours after the horse is treated or 12 hours after. Do we in fact know whether that's interfering with the veterinarian's ability to assess the horse? Dr. Heather Knych is finishing research showing that some NSAIDs have an effect on inflammatory markers 24 hours, 30 hours out [from administration] and those are indicators a veterinarian uses to see if a horse has an injury.

So that was the first step, backing up corticosteroids to where they're supposed to be. The private veterinarians I've talked to say they're seeing fewer injections. As you know, that cuts into their bottom line, but they know it's the right thing for the horse.

With the requirement of the horse needing to be looked at [and a form signed by the private veterinarian] before it's entered, we're starting to see a transition to paying for the vet's time and knowledge, not just medications. 

That's been an issue for some time, that track veterinarians can't charge for their time, only for treatments.
The interesting thing is, and it's something I hadn't thought about, is we all have professional liability insurance. There's kind of a gray area of whether veterinarians are protected by that insurance if they're not charging for services because they're not technically engaged in business then.

We also wanted to know about the one change that wasn't included in the initial list of reforms for Santa Anita, but later happened anyway: the racetrack surface. After examinations by multiple experts, The Stronach Group maintained last spring that the dirt and turf surfaces were found to have no problems – which made for confusion when the group announced a renovation to the dirt surface, to be completed by the fall meet. 

Aidan Butler, chief strategy officer at TSG, told us this about the track surface:
I asked the question to the experts, is there anything else we could do to the track to help with unusual amounts of rainfall? Their suggestion was a French drainage system (which has been installed). 

All the experts have told us there is nothing wrong with the track.

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