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‘Something is drastically wrong’: After 21 horses die, Santa Anita Park shuts down racing

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/6/2019 Desmond Bieler

Video by KTLA-TV Los Angeles

Officials at Santa Anita Park, a storied Los Angeles-area racetrack, declared an indefinite postponement Tuesday to further events at the facility, following the deaths of 21 horses there since the winter season opened Dec. 26. The most recent equine fatality occurred earlier in the day, when a 4-year-old filly was euthanized after injuring her right leg during training. 

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“Something is drastically wrong. I’ve been around a long time and have never seen this,” 82-year-old trainer Art Sherman, who oversaw the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes wins by California Chrome, told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s something wrong in the foundation, or something is not right. The only way to find out is shut it down.”

Santa Anita announced that it was bringing back its former track superintendent, Dennis Moore, “as a precautionary measure with regard to the condition of the one-mile main track.” Per reports, seven horses have died while racing on the dirt oval, five have died during turf races, and nine more have died while training.

a person riding a horse: Some have pointed to unusually wintry weather as a possible cause of the horses' deaths at Santa Anita Park. (Benoit Photo via AP) © AP/AP Some have pointed to unusually wintry weather as a possible cause of the horses' deaths at Santa Anita Park. (Benoit Photo via AP) Over a similar period in the 2017-18 season, 10 horses died, and eight died in 2016-17 (per NBC News). Some are pointing to the region’s unusually wet and cold weather this winter as a possible cause.

“We think that [rain] could definitely contribute even though our experts are telling us not,” Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, told the Associated Press. “The tracks out here are built not for weather like that.”

“I think the weather has a lot to do with it,” said Ron McAnally, the trainer of the horse euthanized Tuesday. “Santa Anita has been a wonderful track, and they’ve done all kinds of tests. I don’t know what else they could do. It’s a fluky thing.”

Mick Peterson, an expert from the University of Kentucky who was also enlisted to inspect the track, was not able to discern any irregularities, but he said that he told Santa Anita officials to “keep testing until we know what’s going on.” Peterson added, “We’re all-in. We’re going to figure it out.”

As the death toll has climbed over the past few weeks, Santa Anita has come under heavy criticism from animal rights activists, some of whom have staged protests at the track. After the 20th horse died Saturday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a statement demanding that the track “close right away” and calling for an investigation into “whether injured horses were being forced to run” while given anti-inflammatory drugs.

a group of people holding a sign posing for the camera: Animal-rights advocates demonstrate in front of Santa Anita Park. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images) © Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images Animal-rights advocates demonstrate in front of Santa Anita Park. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

“Obviously, one horse is too many,” Ritvo said. “The recent rash is just horrible. We need to definitely take a step back and evaluate everything.”

In November, Santa Anita is set to host the Breeders’ Cup, which will mark a record 10th time the event is held at the track in Arcadia, Calif. With roots dating from the 1870s, the original Santa Anita Park opened in 1907 but closed after a few years, then the facility still in use was established in 1934 by a group of investors, including movie mogul Hal Roach.

Among the Hollywood celebrities who owned horses that raced there were Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Al Jolson and Bing Crosby, and it served as the site for equestrian events during the 1984 Olympics. Legendary champions such as Affirmed and John Henry strutted their stuff at Santa Anita, as did Seabiscuit, whose 2003 biographical movie was filmed at the track.

By canceling races at least through the coming weekend, Santa Anita has postponed two of its most notable events: the San Felipe Stakes, which features 3-year-old Kentucky Derby hopefuls, and the Santa Anita Handicap, contested among older horses. Trainer Bob Hess asserted that all associated with the track “agree it’s best” to shut it down and try to solve a tragic, and vexing, issue.

“Without our athletes, without our most precious asset, there is no sport,” Hess told the Times. “Something is wrong and needs to be fixed and addressed immediately. It’s past the point of embarrassing. Santa Anita is the ‘Great Race Place,’ and it’s not great. I’m glad we’re doing this. Without the horses, we’re nothing.”

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