Horse racetrack bans race day medication after 22nd horse dies in less than 3 months

Posted at 10:50 AM, Mar 15, 2019

ARCADIA, Calif. - After another fatality raised Santa Anita Park's horse death toll to 22 in less than three months, company officials on Thursday declared a zero-tolerance policy for race day medication at the Arcadia facility.

The Stronach Group, which owns the racetrack, did not definitively blame the horses' fatal injuries on the substances they received. But the company said it needed to take a step toward fixing a "broken" system, according to KTLA.

In addition to drugging, the park has banned the use of whips on racing days, the New York Times reported.

Santa Anita, along with the Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, will be the first tracks in North America to submit to the strict standards of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, The Stronach Group said.

"This mandate encompasses a complete revision of the current medication policy to improve the safety of our equine and human athletes and to raise the integrity of our sport," a statement from Chairman and President Belinda Stronach said.

The group proclaimed the change in a brief announcement at the park hours after a Santa Anita racetrack spokesman confirmed the latest death on Thursday.

"We’ve never had a problem with her," said David Bernstein of his 3-year-old filly, Princess Lili B. "We don’t have to train her on any medication."

The horse had to be euthanized after breaking her two front ankles at the end of a half-mile training, Bernstein told KTLA on Thursday morning.

Santa Anita started holding timed workouts at its inner training tracks earlier this week ahead of the scheduled reopening on March 22. The racetrack has been shut down since March 5, when a 21st horse died since the winter meet began on Dec. 26.

Santa Anita spokesman Mike Willman previously described the horses' injuries as "multifaceted," and he cited rain as a likely major factor in the incidents. Most of the fatalities happened on dirt surfaces compared to turf.

But PETA officials had said medications taken by the horses could play a role. Thursday's news release from The Stronach Group included the following statement from the animal rights group:

“PETA thanks Santa Anita for standing up to all those who have used any means to force injured or unfit horses to run. This is a historic moment for racing and PETA urges every track to recognize that the future is now and to follow suit.  This groundbreaking plan will not bring back the 22 horses who have died recently, but it will prevent the deaths of many more and will set a new standard for racing that means less suffering for Thoroughbreds.”

The Stronach Group, which also cited support from The Jockey Club, outlined the following changes to its medication policy:

  • Banning the use of Lasix
  • Increasing the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids
  • Complete transparency of all veterinary records
  • Significantly increasing out-of-competition testing
  • Increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race
  • A substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions
  • Horses in training are only allowed therapeutic medication with a qualified veterinary diagnosis

Riders should only use a cushion crop as a corrective safety measure, the company added.

"While we firmly believe our jockeys have not purposely been mistreating their mounts, it is time to make this change," Stronach said in the statement.

On Thursday, Bernstein described conditions at the racetrack as "marvelous" and noted that park officials have called in several experts to assess the site. The Stronach Group said it will continue to have outside specialists review the dirt, turf and synthetic courses at Santa Anita.

"I know they've done the best job they can possibly do... I wouldn’t hesitate to go out and work tomorrow again," Bernstein told KTLA.

KTLA's Jennifer Thang contributed to this report. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect first name for Willman. The story has been updated.