Santa Anita Park begins winter-spring season amid protest

ARCADIA, Calif. (KABC) -- Santa Anita Park's latest racing season began Saturday amid criticism by animal rights activists about the deaths of 37 horses at the Arcadia track within the past year.

Santa Anita officials postponed the track's scheduled opening of its 83rd winter meeting Thursday by two days due to concerns about the rainy weather.

"Opening Day is traditionally one of our biggest days of the year, but our commitment to safety is first and foremost,'' said Aidan Butler, acting executive director of California for The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. "It was very important to make this call as early as possible for our horsemen, fans and employees.''

Six graded stakes races - among them the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes featuring Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile runner-up Omaha Beach and the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes featuring Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint runner-up Bellafina - were on the day's racing card, along with five other races. The track also hosted the Craft Beer & Cider Festival featuring Southern California-brewed beer and cider, along with a free calendar giveaway.

Santa Anita and the sport of horse racing have faced increasing pressure from animal-rights activists in connection with the horse deaths, which included 2017 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Battle of Midway while training at the track on Feb. 23 and Mongolian Groom, who was euthanized after suffering a fatal injury in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 2.

Animal-rights activists hosted a "funeral'' and vigil'' that included a bagpiper outside the track for the horses that have died over the past year.

The California Horse Racing Board is set to issue a report next month on the horse deaths.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office concluded Dec. 19 that there was no criminal wrongdoing connected to the deaths, but offered a series of recommendations aimed at improving safety at racetracks in California.

RELATED: Prosecutor finds no criminal liability in series of Santa Anita horse deaths

A task force formed by the Los Angeles district attorney found the 49 deaths at the track during a 12-month period ending in June occurred at a rate higher than the national average, but lower than some years in the past decade and lower than Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

"Horse racing has inherent risks but is a legally sanctioned sport in California,'' District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement. Greater precautions are needed to enhance safety and protect both horses and their riders.''

The district attorney called on state regulators to develop safety enhancements to reduce horse deaths, including possible enhanced penalties for rules violations, establishment of a tip line for people to report violations or animacruelty allegations and mandated inspections of racing and training facilities, and reviews of necropsy and veterinary records of horses that have died.

The report also made recommendations aimed at identifying pre-existing conditions in horses that could lead to breakdowns, establishing track-maintenance protocols - including special measures during rain or extreme weather conditions, and creation of "safety codes of conduct'' for owners, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians and others who care for horses.

The report noted that officials at Santa Anita have implemented a series of safety-improvement measures that have reduced the number of fatal racing and training incidents.''

Earlier this month, Santa Anita debuted a "cutting-edge'' PET Scan machine to provide imaging of the fetlock or ankle joint - the most common area for injuries to occur in Thoroughbreds -- without horses having to undergo anesthesia, and said it will help to diagnose pre-existing conditions in Thoroughbred racehorses.

RELATED: Santa Anita Park unveils standing PET scan machine for horses

"This state-of-the-art technology reflects a new standard of care within Thoroughbred racing -- a standard that puts the health and safety of horses and riders first,'' said Belinda Stronach, The Stronach Group's chairman and president.

City News Service contributed to this report.
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