THE DEATHS OF 22 HORSES OVER 75 DAYS PROMPTED RACING TO RETHINK ITS RULES, ITS JURISDICTION AND ITS PLACE IN AMERICA
ON THE second-to-last day of December, a 4-year-old gelding named Psychedelicat was loaded into the starting gate at Southern California's Santa Anita Park, where he would run for the 18th time in his undistinguished career. Sent off at 6--1 odds, fourth choice in the field of eight, he dropped back quickly to fifth place, and then last, and then was pulled up by jockey Mario Gutierrez before completing half the race. The official chart of the race notes, in the terse shorthand of the sport: PULLED UP, VANNED OFF. His trainer, 72-year-old Jerry Hollendorfer, a respected member of the Racing Hall of Fame, says that Psychedelicat suffered a broken sesamoid, a walnut-sized bone that approximates the function of the human kneecap, although closer to the bottom of the leg. Horses are often unable to recover from sesamoid fractures, and that was the case with Psychedelicat, who was euthanized after the race.
His death didn't make news, because it isn't an uncommon occurrence. But it was followed by two more deaths at Santa Anita four days later, in the same race. And then another one four days after that. Three days later, another. By the time 4-year-old filly Lets Light the Way was euthanized after a leg injury during a training run on March 5, 21 horses had died at Santa Anita in 66 days, a stunning total. The track was closed, and the racing surface inspected.
Six days later, it reopened for limited training amid protests and satellite trucks. Then, on March 14, filly Princess Lili B broke both front ankles in a morning workout and was later euthanized. Number 22. (A 23rd died on March 31, two days after the track fully reopened.)
The afternoon of Princess Lili B's death, Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group—which owns Santa Anita and several other racetracks—issued an "open letter" proposing sweeping changes. Among them: a zero-tolerance ban of the controversial race-day diuretic Lasix, which is used by approximately 95% of U.S. thoroughbreds; increased limitations on various non-race-day anti-inflammatory medications, shock-wave therapy and anabolic steroids; and a mandate that the riding crop—or whip—be used only as a safety measure. The Stronach Group and California thoroughbred owners ultimately reached a compromise agreement modifying primarily the part of Stronach's proposal that applied to Lasix. Trainers had complained that horses accustomed to using Lasix could not be taken off the medication cold turkey, so instead of an immediate ban, there will be a gradual one.
The drastic moves would seem to indicate a plausible cause-and-effect between medication (in particular Lasix) and breakdowns. But there is little evidence of that. Many California trainers point instead to the heavy rains that inundated the area this winter, after years of drought. "It's the racing surface that's hurting horses, not the medication," says famed trainer Bob Baffert, who has not lost any horses this winter. "The track has been heavier and deeper."
Baffert says that he has trained his horses less frequently this winter, but many trainers do not have the luxury of his elite stable and the support of his very wealthy owners. Additionally, Santa Anita ownership has been on a yearlong push to increase the size of race fields, which leads to horses racing—and training—more frequently. And, Baffert says, "when horses get tired, and they're struggling to get around out there, that's when they get hurt."
Still, there are good arguments for a Lasix ban. First made legal for U.S. racing in the mid-1970s, the drug—which is designed to limit exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging, or bleeding into the lungs, in horses under duress—has been controversial almost from the start. It is allowed in every major racing jurisdiction in America, yet its efficacy remains in question. Ken McKeever, professor of animal sciences at Rutgers, has done, and seen, studies that leave him unconvinced that Lasix effectively controls bleeding. "It's a drug that really doesn't work very well," says McKeever. Yet trainers use it in massive numbers, and the drug is actually regarded by many as a performance enhancer. "Do I think Lasix is a problem?" Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion says. "I don't. But if you're going to create a system where you cut off everything else, you're going to have to cut off Lasix, too." Motion vigorously supports reducing the use of anti-inflammatory drugs, which can mask pain. It is an obvious and good choice.
However, thus far, the two California tracks owned by Stronach stand in a precarious position, either leading a revolution or dying alone. Suddenly, Baffert, who has won two Triple Crowns in four years with American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) and calls California racing "the best in the country," finds himself wondering if he might have to set up shop elsewhere.
The disparate interests of racing jurisdictions are an age-old problem. "Racing needs a national governing body," says David Israel, a horse owner and former chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. "It won't be perfect, but it will be better than the Balkanized mess that has harmed racing for the last 40 or 50 years. The sport has to embrace change and grow, or it will be the stubborn author of its own extinction."
Meanwhile, those who work in the sport are confronted with the most stinging criticism of all: that they are trafficking in animal cruelty. But it's cold to suggest that humans who spend 18 hours a day (or more) in the company of thoroughbreds do not develop an affection for them. "At the end of the day, the horses enjoy doing this," Motion says. "And they're treated well. Better than some humans. And all of that is hard to explain to people outside our business." One of the most powerful arguments against racing is that horses are being forced into painful endeavors that they dislike, without their consent. Trainers like Motion argue otherwise. The truth is that nobody knows. Not the trainers. Not PETA. This is a complicated ecosystem, with no simple answers.
FACES IN THE CROWD