Racing Fatalities Decline in California

Just one death at Santa Anita since Dec. 31 after rash of breakdowns at meet's start.

Since a rash of five horse breakdowns in the opening five days of racing at the current Santa Anita meet -- resulting in four fatalities -- there has been just one race-related death since Dec. 31, Dr. Rick Arthur told the California Horse Racing Board.

In a report to the board during its meeting Feb. 26, Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, said that there have been no racing fatalities at Golden Gate Fields at its current meet. Both tracks opened their winter stands on Dec. 26.

Santa Anita, which uses Pro-Ride synthetic racing surface for its main track, and Golden Gate's Tapeta all-weather track, were the targets of intense trainer complaints shortly after the start of their seasons. But after corrective measures were taken, racing-related breakdowns have declined dramatically, Arthur said.

"Going back to 2004, this is the only time I was able to find either track without a racing fatality in January," Arthur told the board. "Whatever the reason -- rain, changes in maintenance procedures, pre-race examinations -- we have had as safe of racing as anywhere in the world in January and February at our Thoroughbred tracks. Hopefully, we will be able to continue that success when the tracks dry out and the heat comes."

There were at least 5,366 starters at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields during this time frame, he said.

California's major Thoroughbred tracks have been under much scrutiny since they switched to synthetic surfaces under a racing board mandate.

Arthur said that fatalities during training are running at about the same level as in past years, but noted that there can be many reasons for this aside from racing surface-related breakdowns.

"California operates eight racing (and training) facilities at any one time with between 5-to-7,000 horses in training," he said. "Besides ordinary training injuries we see all sorts of accidents and illnesses. Two horses ran into each other with fatal injuries to both. There was one anesthetic death. Another horse re-fractured a pastern recovering from surgery. One horse ruptured a mesenteric (abdominal) artery while training. And two horses got loose, one with the rider and one without, and ran into the outside rail sustaining fatal injuries."

Arthur said more stringent penalties for violations of acceptable thresholds for commonly administered medications such as phenylbutazone, flunixin, ketoprofen, and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are having the desired effect too.

"You get to a second and third violation," he noted, "and it gets to be a very expensive mistake. Trainers are getting the message the CHRB is tough, but consistent and fair. So far, everything is going along very well."

On the Southern California circuit, he reported, the last clenbuterol positive occurred in fall 2007. There were just two findings from 40,000 tests in the entire state that exceeded the allowable limit for total carbon dioxide (TCO2) in all of 2008, Arthur said.

"We have not had a TCO2 violation in Northern California since June 2007," he said.

In addition, Arthur said trainers and veterinarians have responded "as well as we could have hoped"  to the state's ban on anabolic steroids.

Dr. Scott Stanley, who directs the state's drug testing at the University of California-Davis' Ken Maddy Equine Laboratory, told the board: "I think we have as straight a game in California racing as you can have."

He said technicians have collected and frozen about 25,000 blood samples that can be used for additional testing for such substances as human growth hormone or HCG, for which there is no adequate test currently. That includes samples taken during out-of-competition testing.

"Freezing samples, like all drug testing, is a deterrent," Arthur added. "If anyone is bending the rules, we don't want them sleeping at night."