Most track deaths tied to pre-existing conditions, report on Santa Anita shows

The Santa Anita track is set against the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains. Photo: Elf assumed (based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia
The Santa Anita track is set against the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains. Photo: Elf assumed (based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

No illegal medications or procedures were uncovered that contributed to the deaths of 23 Thoroughbreds at California’s Santa Anita Raceway during a three-month period, racing authorities have concluded.

The California Horse Racing Board launched an inquiry into the deaths to determine whether any rule violations may have contributed, and to analyze available information to see whether further safety improvements were warranted.

Twenty-two of the horses suffered a fatal musculoskeletal injury; one died suddenly during training.

The board’s 76-page report, released this week, found that 21 of the horses had evidence of pre-existing pathology at the site of their fatal injury.

Nineteen of the 22 catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries involved proximal sesamoid bone fractures, a site where fracture risk has been linked to racing and training intensity.

In 21 of the cases of catastrophic breakdown, the evidence of a pre-existing problem with the bone is presumed to be associated with high exercise intensity.

Eleven of the horses had received corticosteroid injections into joints, five of them within 60 days of fatal injury, and two within 14 days of injury.

The overwhelming majority of the major breakdowns in this cluster involved the fetlock joint.

Most of the horses that suffered catastrophic breakdowns — 14 of 22 — exhibited a high-intensity exercise profile followed by a decline in activity in the month before their fatal injury.

Nearly a third — 7 of 22 — had a history of at least six months between race starts at some point in their respective careers.

“The data suggests that 39% of the fatalities occurred on surfaces affected by wet weather,” the report noted.

“Although several trainers expressed concern over the condition of the track due to the weather, none blamed the track itself for any fatality.”

Before the review, the majority of horsemen had not previously reviewed the necropsy reports on their horses.

“Furthermore, many did not display good working knowledge of anatomy or grasp the significance of major pre-existing (bone) lesions.”

Record-keeping by the horsemen involved in the investigation overall was poor except in a couple of instances, the report said.

Large gaps in historical information were noted in case histories for the affected horses.

“Organizationally,” the authors said, “the track veterinarian and examining veterinarians being supervised by the racing association’s Racing Office poses an inherent conflict.”

In several cases, it is suspected that program training was taking place, the report said. Program training entails someone controlling (overseeing) the horse other than the licensed trainer listed with the California Horse Racing Board.

Sixteens of the horses who died were under the care of trainers with at least one other fatality within the preceding year.

“While several trainers said during investigative interviews that they felt pressured to run their horses, only one gave a specific example.”

The report provides a long list of recommendations, ranging from better and more accessible data on track conditions, to standardized protocols for shifting from the turf course, and strict criteria for canceling racing based on weather and surface conditions.

The board called for better basic health records on horses by trainers, and continuing education for trainers and attending veterinarians.

More detail needs to be provided on recent exercise history to enable the board’s review panel to evaluate horses, the authors said.

Workout requirement criteria should be re-evaluated, the report said. The authors also called for compulsory diagnostic imaging based on exercise history.

Compulsory official examinations should be introduced for horses returning from layoffs of making a belated racing debut.

They also proposed compulsory rests for horses based on the rate of accumulation of high-speed furlongs in training, or the number of recorded high-speed events.

Turning to veterinarians, the report said efforts should be made to transition to digital veterinary medical records.

“Private practitioners should seek to increase physical examinations prior to high-speed workouts, race entries, and intra-articular therapy.”

Furthermore, more diagnostic work should be undertaken before joint injections.

On horse safety and welfare, the authors said industry support is needed for research to better understand proximal sesamoid bone and fetlock injuries.

Industry support should also be given for research to improve understanding of the relationship between dorsal metacarpal/metatarsal disease and catastrophic injuries.

The board should implement its proposed measures for expanding the list of prohibited medications and practices, including but not limited to the use of bisphosphonates, extracorporeal shockwave therapy, thyroxine, and furosemide.

“Restrictions on medications that can be administered for workouts must be expanded and enforced,” the report said.

Track veterinarian emergency procedures should be formalized.

“Restrictions and controls must be in place to ensure that horses are suited for high-speed workouts and racing and training records must be examined before horses are permitted to work.

“Continuing education should be required as a condition of licensing with a focus on the etiology of common veterinary syndromes of the thoroughbred racehorse.”

Licensing requirements for both trainers and assistant trainers should be expanded and potentially standardized on a national level, and include requiring a specific length of apprenticeship or animal experience hours before eligibility to apply.

Program training should be expressly prohibited in the board’s rules and regulations, and strictly enforced.

“The potential association between crop use and serious musculoskeletal injury should also be systematically examined.”

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Racetrack, said important reforms had already been undertaken, and it looked forward to making continued progress.

“There has been a 64 percent reduction in catastrophic injuries at Santa Anita Park this year, and we have not had a single fatality during racing on our main track for the entirety of this season.

“While the first number represents a positive development, the second number is always the goal. We welcome the opportunity to work together with our industry partners to implement the suggested reforms and to make 2020 a year we can all be proud of.”

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