Protest held over recent horse deaths at Santa Anita Park

ARCADIA, Calif. (KABC) -- Demonstrators gathered at Santa Anita Park on Sunday to protest the recent deaths of at least 20 horses at the racetrack in the last two months.

Local animal activists and Last Chance for Animals held the peaceful protest over the "ongoing danger to horses and riders from dangerous racing practices."

It all comes after another horse died at the park Saturday, bringing the death toll to 20 horses within the last two months. It happened during the third race of the day when Eskenforadrink suffered a life-ending injury to her ankle when she was leading the pack. The 4-year-old filly had to be euthanized.

Before Esken's death, 19 other horses had died within the last two months at the park, which prompted a two-day closure of the main track. Officials put the soil through intense testing, including ground-penetrating radar, to make sure nothing would happen again.

Officials said the 20 horses that have died suffered a number of different fractures and at least one had a heart attack. Necropsies are being done to the horses to determine their exact causes of death.

"This is unusual. It does happen though, it's called statistical clustering, but we always take it seriously because again we can't do this. This is not an acceptable number of catastrophic injuries," said Mick Peterson, with the University of Kentucky.

Some said the unusually wet winter may be a factor in the deaths, while activists including PETA say the horses are overworked.

"Twenty dead horses is 20 too many and the only responsible action is for the track to close immediately to stop this spiral of deaths. The California Horse Racing Board and Santa Anita must do this now, and law enforcement must begin an immediate investigation of trainers and veterinarians to find out if injured horses were being forced to run," a statement from PETA said, in part.

The organization is also calling for the district attorney to investigate as track officials wait for results of their own investigation to see if the tragedies are connected.

On Sunday, Santa Anita Park officials said the condition of the racetrack is good, adding that 390 horses completed workouts at the track from Thursday to Saturday without injury.

Aaron Gryder, an award-winning jockey who has been riding for more than 30 years, gave the racing community's reaction to the recent deaths.

"Safety is No. 1, and I know the track does everything they can to test and make sure the track is safe, and as a jockey, I have the right and the choice when I get out there. If I don't feel safe on the track - me, personally - I can go to the gate and say, 'I don't want to ride this race,'" he explained.
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