Santa Anita begins fall race season amid dozens of horse deaths at track

ARCADIA, Calif. (KABC) -- Santa Anita Park is beginning its 23-day autumn racing meet Friday under intense scrutiny prompted by the deaths of 31 horses at the track since late December.

The racing meet will be highlighted by the Breeders Cup World Championships on Nov. 1 and 2 - the record 10th time Santa Anita has hosted the Breeders Cup.

Despite the excitement among horse-racing enthusiasts for that event, the sport as a whole has come under increased pressure in response to the spate of deaths during Santa Anita's most recent meet. Thirty horses died at Santa Anita between late December and June. A 31st horse, a 4-year-old gelding that broke its pelvis during training hours, was euthanized at the track earlier this month.

In response to the series of horse deaths, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law in June allowing the agency overseeing horse racing in California to immediately suspend licenses to protect the health and safety of horses and riders.

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"This is more serious than it's ever been and we will remained reformed as we see fit," said the parks acting Executive Director, Aidan Butler.

Racing was halted at the track for most of March while examinations were conducted on the track. Races resumed April 4 after the state horse racing board approved a series of safety measures, and Santa Anita officials announced a series of steps aimed at bolstering the safety of horses at the track, including restrictions on certain medications, requiring trainers to get permission in advance before putting a horse through a workout and investing in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.

"Everything we're doing is putting the horses in the forefront. If we're not taking care of them, we're not doing our jobs, we don't deserve to race them," said Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinarian for the Stronach Group.

Santa Anita and the California Horse Racing Board also created a "safety review team'' that evaluates all horses at the track. The panel of veterinarians and stewards has the authority to scratch a horse from a race if even one panelist questions the animal's fitness.

Santa Anita officials announced earlier this week it will have a seven-member veterinary inspection team for the autumn meet, led by Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for track owners The Stronach Group. The team will "oversee every aspect of Santa Anita's training and racing operation.''

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"In addition to reviewing past performance, workout patterns and veterinary records, this team will continue to observe horses as they go to and exit both the main track and training track each morning, as well as observe horses as they go through their daily routines, be it jogging, galloping or breezing.''
Track officials noted that all horses entered to run at the track will be "physically inspected at their respective barns.''

The team "will be reviewing all horses that have given 48-hour notice to work out, on either the one-mile main track or six-furlong training track, as well as reviewing all horses that are entered to run in races.''

The death of a horse at Santa Anita earlier this month was the fifth training death to occur in Southern California since Santa Anita's closing day on June 23. Four horses died while training during Del Mar's seven-week meet.

Two of the deaths came as the result of a freak accident on the second day of the meet when a horse threw his rider and ran head first into another horse, killing both animals instantly.

The fall season concludes on Nov. 3.

City News Service contributed to this story.
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