Belinda Stronach To Legislators: California Racing Now ‘Gold Standard’ For Safety

by | 05.23.2019 | 1:48am
Thoroughbreds training at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.

A wide array of state and national Thoroughbred racing and breeding representatives spoke at an informational hearing of the California Senate and Assembly's Governmental Organization Committee in the State Capitol in Sacramento on Wednesday. The hearing – whose subject was entitled an Overview of Equine and Human Safety and Welfare Policies and Procedures Within California's Horse Racing Industry – was put on the legislative calendar after a widely publicized increase of racing and training fatalities of horses at Santa Anita Park raised concerns in the general public and led to an investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney.

Governmental Organization Committee co-chairs Sen. Bill Dodd and Assemblymember Adam Gray have introduced legislation that would authorize the California Horse Racing Board to close a racetrack over concerns for safety and welfare issues.

Committee members who participated seemed genuinely interested in gathering facts on what the CHRB, racetrack owner The Stronach Group and horsemen are doing to improve the safety and welfare of horses and jockeys participating in racing within California. They also sought answers about what may have caused the nearly two dozen fatalities in just over three months at the Arcadia track. After a nearly seven-week gap in fatalities since the last death occurred during a March 31 race, Santa Anita saw two horses sustain fatal injuries last week – one during training on Friday and a second during a race on Sunday.

Several speakers said reforms initiated in March have made racing and training much safer.

Individuals on six separate panels provided statements and took questions in a hearing that got a late start because of an extended session of the Assembly and lasted barely two hours, ending at 6 p.m. PT.

The first panel of regulators included CHRB vice chairman Madeline Auerbach, the CHRB's executive director Rick Baedeker and equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur, along with veterinarian and equine pharmacologist from the University of California-Davis, Dr. Heather Knych.  Up next came a panel of horsemen, including trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Mike Smith. Gary Fenton representing the Thoroughbred Owners of California and Darrell Haire of the Jockeys' Guild.

Belinda Stronach, chairman of the Stronach Group, was joined on the third panel by Stronach Group Racing Division president Mike Rogers, and by Dionne Benson, recently hired as the company's chief veterinary officer.

Next up was Alex Waldrop and Craig Fravel, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Breeders' Cup, respectively. They were followed by track surface specialist Mick Peterson of the University of Kentucky. The final group consisted of representatives of the California Association of Racing Fairs, the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the pari-mutuel workers union.

Two individuals  spoke during a brief public comment period, including Kathy Guillermo of PETA, who has worked with industry organizations on horse racing reforms.

Legislators were given a broad overview of standard operating safety procedures in California racing, including pre-race veterinary examinations, post-race drug testing and a longstanding necropsy program that tries to determine the cause of fatal injuries and develop risk factors for injury prevention.

They learned about national programs, including the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, Equine Injury Database and NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance.

Belinda Stronach spoke about the reforms developed by her company's management team in concert with Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers. As a result, she said, “I believe California racing is now the safest in North America,” calling it the “gold standard” for safety.

Stronach said she is advocating for change, not just in Calfornia, but across the country.

She added that some of the reforms, such as greatly limiting the use of the riding crop, were done in response to public perceptions. Stronach insisted, however, “This isn't a PR stunt.”

Hall of Famer Smith said the riding crop – which he called more like a NERF than a whip – is a “necessary tool that we really, really have to have,” citing Maximum Security's erratic run on the stretch turn of the Kentucky Derby. Asked if he feels the Santa Anita surface is now safe, Smith said he wouldn't ride there if he didn't think it was. “My life's on the line every time I go out there,” he said.

Baffert, trainer of two Triple Crown winners and also a member of racing's Hall of Fame, concurred with Smith, pointing out several of the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby trained at Santa Anita during the winter. “I race all over the United States and California is probably the most regulated state,” Baffert said. “These horses jump through a lot of hoops before they get to that starting gate.”

Baffert said the multiple deaths have increased awareness among his fellow horsemen. “I think the trainers are going to do a better job of policing themselves,” he said.

He joined several other speakers who believe the increase in fatalities was largely due to an unusually wet and cold winter in Southern California.

Fravel, a longtime executive at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club before joining Breeders' Cup in 2011, said “California has always been first” when it comes to developing the highest safety standards in North American racing. “It's important to tell you what a great example California has set over the years,” he said.

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