By Martin Macias Jr.
ARCADIA – The California Horse Racing Board voted Thursday to bar the use of some horse medications for one year amid spirited calls from animal rights activists for a statewide ban on the sport.
The Golden State’s horse racing industry has come under intense scrutiny after 23 thoroughbred horses died in the last four months during racing or training at Santa Anita Park, one of the nation’s prominent tracks.
The deaths sparked condemnation from the public and elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The California Democrat said in an April 2 letter to the board that racing at Santa Anita should be suspended until the deaths are fully investigated.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement Tuesday that her office is doing just that, directing investigators to determine “whether unlawful conduct or conditions affected the welfare and safety of horses” at the track.
Board executive director Rick Baedeker said at a meeting at Santa Anita Park on Thursday that the board is committed to determining the underlying cause of the deaths, mainly through its probe led by four investigators who have issued over 70 subpoenas.
Baedeker also lauded an agreement by major track operators to ban racing day injections of Lasix, a diuretic used to keep horses from hemorrhaging after traumatic injuries. The drug has already been banned on race days in every country but the U.S. and Canada.
Animal rights activists dominated the public comment period of the board meeting, urging members to protect horses by banning the sport entirely. Commenter Amanda Lundberg said people who claim to love horses can’t justify racing them given the safety risks.
“You can love horses and love horse racing,” Lundberg said. “But you can’t do both.”
Other activists, holding images of bloodied horse ankles and broken bones, described horse racing as a “blood sport” and said that horses were involuntary participants because they are unaware of the risks they face by racing.
Madeline Auerbach, the board’s vice chair, told the animal rights activists they were misinformed about the treatment of horses, adding that many horses end up in sanctuaries after their careers.
“You speak about something as if you really know it,” Auerbach said. “You don’t acknowledge or appreciate how much we love these animals.”
Board chairman Chuck Winner said he sympathized with activists’ concerns and said the industry is responding to calls for reform.
“One loss is too many, we all know that.” Winner said.
The board voted Thursday to take no action on moving race dates allocated to the Los Angeles Turf Club, the operator of the track, if it decides to suspend racing in the future.
Races are scheduled at the track until the end of June.
The most recent horse death occurred on March 31, shortly after Santa Anita reopened following testing the track’s soil. The track saw heavy rains and an unusually cold winter.
In March, track operators announced a slew of new regulations meant to prevent horse deaths, including requiring trainers to apply for permission to train horses in high-speed runs, making veterinarian records transparent and banning the administration of medications on race day.
Some of the banned medications include anabolic steroids, joint injections and anti-inflammatory drugs.
The board has also shown it is responsive to concerns from the public and from lawmakers, voting in March to limit the use of riding crops in racing statewide.
Board members said they were concerned that the crop had been overused in some races and may have contributed to some of the deaths at Santa Anita, according the media reports.
At Santa Anita, the crop can only be used to correct behaviors that put the horse’s safety at risk, according to a statement from The Stronach Group, which operates the track.
The board is also clamping down on misconduct, filing a complaint Tuesday against trainer William Morey alleging he injected two horses with a substance containing an alkalinizing agent meant to enhance the horse’s performances.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said last week they will host a joint oversight hearing on horse racing safety in May.
The lawmakers also endorsed Senate Bill 469 – co-written by state Sen. Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park and Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Arcadia – which, if passed would give the California Horse Racing Board authority to suspend racing if dangerous conditions exist.
The first hearing on the bill is set for April 23.