The 19 Horses: Quagmire at the American Racetrack

A troubling number of horses have seen their last day at Santa Anita Park in California.

Updated: March 2, 2019 • 11:25 AM ET

Santa Anita Park may have a serious issue at hand.

Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. has been a crime scene of late. Officials from The Stronach Group, who own the “Great Race Place”, probably wouldn’t concur with that assessment, but that’s what it has been.

Forensic teams conducted necropsies (autopsies for horses), large pieces of construction equipment pealed back the strata like it was an onion, and experts used ground-penetrating radar and examined soil samples pre-dating 2007, all in an effort to establish probable cause. Short of calling on Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, it seemed that every avenue was being pursued to explain the circumstance.

Or was it?

First, a disclaimer: I’m not a member of any organization that defends animals and their rights — never have been. I love the sport of horse racing, and I think it’s woven into the fabric of America through a long history.

However, horses come first in my estimation, and I would fervently argue that good governance should reign. Less whipping them during a race like France just ruled on? Oui. Banning substance abuse and performance enhancing drugs as they do in Britain? Cheers. Races cannot run without charges; that’s not specious reasoning.

Nineteen. That’s the number of horses that have been euthanized (a Greek word meaning “good death”) at Santa Anita since their meet opened the day after Christmas. Apparently, training or race injuries were sustained on dirt and turf courses almost equally.

Nineteen. That seems like an inordinate number.

Or is it?

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Last week, news outlets were abuzz with stories about Santa Anita. What was happening? How could this be? Look at the track, most said. How about the weather patterns? After all, SoCal was socked this past year, wasn’t it?

The soil, it must be that. You can envision the nodding of heads. Officials quickly moved to shut down the training schedule; it was squashed for a few days.

The science behind what happens on a racetrack dictates that micro-fractures in horses’ legs regularly occur during training on dirt (since it’s so harsh). The pounding can lead to skeletal breakdowns that force extremely expensive euthanizations. It’s an emotional and economic blow.

Santa Anita looked for answers. So, they called in Holmes after all, or the equivalent. Mick Peterson, the eminent expert on track-related injuries to racehorses, boarded a plane in Kentucky and headed West. Armed with a kit of information, he has arrived to proffer his opinions. It will matter.

• See Peterson’s influential piece concerning racetrack safety and measurement by clicking here.

To combat future crimes, Santa Anita has also assembled an ad hoc committee, which will comprise Peterson, Hall of Fame retired jockey turned CHRB commissioner Alex Solis, executive vice president of racing for The Stronach Group P.J. Campo, California Thoroughbred Trainers president Jim Cassidy, jockey Aaron Gryder and exercise rider Humberto Gomez, who exercised the Triple Crown winning Justify. According to Solis, the committee could also include state veterinarian Tim Grande.

Let’s step back for a minute, though. Maybe this isn’t about searching for causation in the soil. Consider this: whatever the fatality count is at any given racetrack in America, what if the number of deaths over a greater swath of time was normal? That is, what if we don’t know how many horses have been euthanized over the course of say, the 20th century.

Or to go even further, what if tracks today don’t accurately report the amount of horses that are euthanized because they’re worried about the turnstiles and their image? In light of this, how are we, the general public, able to consider/weigh the number of racing-related deaths? Is one, one too many?

To put this line of questioning in context, it seems like the number of deaths associated with armed conflicts throughout history. For instance, during the American Civil War (considered the first modern war), both the North and South began measuring their success by the number of enemies that were killed, wounded or captured. To increase morale, the North manipulated those statistics at several points. This was especially the case when Lincoln’s generals were muddling along, and Lee was putting the hammer down in 1862.

Since then, nations fighting conflicts have done the same, using body counts to their own ends, or in some cases, not using them. The Vietnam War (not technically a war, but a conflict since it was never voted on by Congress) is a case in point. As it dragged on, nightly broadcasts revealed casualty numbers to the public, using what we would consider rudimentary graphics. Thus, an armchair war came into the living room. My Lai, the Mekong Delta and Tet, all laid bare.

Support lagged and public opinion soured on what became known as a “quagmire.”

What changed wasn’t that soldiers were dying, that was a fact of every war since the Revolution; but rather the cultural norms were shifting. Threshold politics, societal forces and life spans were all fluctuating. Instead of taking a hill at all costs, those casualties now were being weighed and measured with a different threshold. Soldiers were people, had families and if they put their lives on the line, their country needed to reciprocate.

Despite these assertions, troops still fight and die in foreign places. Don’t they?

Isn’t it similar for racehorses? It’s not trite to surmise that the track is a battlefield. They could easily die of a micro-fracture just like a soldier could from an IED.

Certainly, humans are different from horses, and Darwinian theories dictate as such. Yet, we humans still have a responsibility to them.

Suffice it to say, despite what has occurred at Santa Anita, it’s moving in a positive direction with the tracking of this all-important data that has been missing from the past century. It’s like the Opioid crisis; you cannot measure abuse if you don’t have a way of tracking the data.

• See my latest book with colleague Steve Rooney on the subject by clicking here.

Since 2007, the efforts by the Jockey Club and the progressive state of New York continue to be monumental when it comes to measuring injuries and deaths at American racetracks. Has Santa Anita done enough? Only time will tell.

The track re-opened with a certain practiced apathy this past Thursday, not sighs of relief. Soil samples and trickles of sweat permeated from the findings, which were decidedly inconclusive.

I would guess that the problem remains the same. Since dirt racing is so ingrained in American racing, perhaps it will take something like a catastrophe, more than 19, to shock ownership into action. But, even more than that, the culture has begun to shift.

Waves are more powerful now. People will take less convincing to support a sport that abuses its charges. To put it another way, simply saying that you smoke Lucky Strikes since that’s what your Dad did during the war will not be enough of an excuse not to quit.

Things are changing. Horses need their own #MeToo moment.

In the meantime, while the humans muddle about with bags of soil, maybe the only solace for horses is a coup de grâce, a blow of mercy.

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