Officials with the California Horse Racing Board vigorously contested reports that the state has seen any spike or even a significant increase in the number of sudden death cases statewide.
"Just to be clear: the number of sudden deaths has not spiked in California," CHRB commissioner Bo Derek, chair of the commission's Medication and Track Safety Committee, said during a meeting April 11. "Dr. (Rick) Arthur very clearly reported the number of sudden deaths has been fairly constant over the last 20 years, in the neighborhood of 20 per year. This is a longstanding international problem. Our medical team, with some assistance from our investigative staff, continues to collect data for their research into sudden deaths."
BloodHorse.com on April 11 reported the state had seen a spike in cardiac failures, as reported in the CHRB Postmortem Examination Program for fiscal year 2011-2012. The story also reported that four of the 11 cases seen between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012, were horses stabled with leading Southern California trainer Bob Baffert, who has had three more sudden deaths occur between August 2012 and March 14.
In the postmortem report's summary it stated: "During this period there were 11 cases of sudden death due to cardiac failure. This represents an increase from four horses with this diagnosis during 2008-2009 and six with the same diagnosis in 2010-2011."
The BloodHorse.com story noted that pathologists have done extensive toxicology studies, pathology and histological exams and have not been able to determine an exact cause for these sudden deaths.
Baffert issued the following statement April 12 about the sudden deaths in his barn: "The safety of my horses has been and always will be the most important thing to me. The mysterious deaths are personally troubling and of great sadness to me, my family and the owners of the horses. My heart goes out to the horses' owners.
"I am working with everyone, including the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), my veterinarians and staff at the tracks to find causes for the unexplained deaths. California Horse Racing Board's Bo Derek and the state's equine medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur have made it clear that nothing I have done has caused any horse I have trained to suffer equine sudden death syndrome. My professional focus will continue to be to provide the best care for my horses, with constant concern for their well-being."
Arthur said April 12 that the 11 cardiac failures listed in the postmortem report are a statistical anomaly.
"I believe it can be attributed to statistical variation from year to year, and that we are more intensely looking at sudden deaths. If you look at this category for this year, it will be between six and 10," he said. "Even before this brouhaha, in 2011—before any of Bob's horses died—we got all the pathologists involved. We have focused on heart problems and have gone to greater efforts on the toxicology. We have not found anything untoward."
Trace amounts of rat poison had been discovered in two horses that died suddenly.
"The toxicologist was unclear of its significance it was so low, but both horses had internal hemorrhage problems so they took it seriously," Arthur said. "Neither of those rodenticides were used by the pest control agencies or the respective track where they are at."
One of the horses testing positive for rat poison was at Santa Anita Park in the barn of Mike Mitchell. The 7-year-old gelding died March 2 during a race. The necropsy showed severe internal bleeding but no ruptured vessels. The rat poison was brodifacoum, which is an anticoagulant, meaning it prevents the blood from clotting.
"When horses exercise, their blood pressure goes through the roof. It is very, very high," Arthur said. "If a horse starts bleeding, it doesn't take long to bleed out."
According to Arthur, the total number of sudden deaths has been very consistent for the past several years. Seventeen cases have been reported for fiscal year 2012-2013 with two more months still to go. The total number of sudden deaths was 19 for fiscal year 2012 and 20 for fiscal year 2011. During a meeting April 10 of the CHRB Medication and Track Safety Committee, Arthur said 40% of sudden deaths can be attributed directly to or presumptively by cardiac lesions and almost the same amount to respiratory or pulmonary edema. He said about 30% are unexplained.
"Unfortunately, the issue with Baffert has obscured the other issue here," Arthur said April 12. "This whole thing is about people who are trying to skewer Bob. His cases are unusual, but it is no more statistically unusual than that a lot of these cases are at Hollywood Park."
Out of 30 sudden death necropsy reports generated between July 17, 2011, and March 14, a total of 16 occurred at Betfair Hollywood Park. Other trainers who had sudden death cases include Bruce Headley, Ray Bell, Carla Gaines, Ron Ellis, Jerry Quinn, Craig Dollase, John Cooper, A.C. Avila, Gary Sherlock, Robert Troeger, Rafael Becerra, Jack Carava, Dallas Keen, Philip Diamato, Jefferey Metz, Samuel Almaraz listed with Jack Van Berg, Ramon Pulido, Kathy Walsh, Sean McCarthy, Mike Mitchell, and Robert Lucas. The names of horses and their owners were all redacted from necropsy reports.
The number of sudden deaths among Baffert's horses last year did cause the official CHRB veterinarian or the attending veterinarian to note on the final version of a necropsy report for a horse that died June 15, 2012: "4th horse to collapse/die for this trainer in less than one year."
Arthur said a notation like that is simply an observation that may be important for the pathologist to know.
"Whenever there is an anomaly, we look at that and assess whether there is really a trend or whether it is anomaly," he said. "There is not much that we miss, and I spend a lot of time on it. Bob has been very cooperative, and his vet has been very cooperative."
"I hope that research by CHRB and its pathologists will discover information helpful to understanding the reasons that I, and many of my colleagues, have had horses suffer this unfortunate fate," Baffert included in his statement.