Big weekend of racing approaching for Santa Anita Park

Beleaguered racetrack has seen 23 horses die

By SONYA HAMASAKI, CNN
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Santa Anita Park

(CNN) - A high-stakes weekend of important races is approaching for Santa Anita Park -- the racetrack where 23 horses have died since December, rocking the industry.

On Saturday, the track will host the Santa Anita Derby, a $1,000,000 West Coast steppingstone to qualify for the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

There are 36 runs scheduled between Thursday afternoon and Sunday. Eight races were run Thursday.

Over 39,000 spectators attended the main event in 2018, and watched hometown favorite Justify win the race on his way to becoming a Triple Crown winner.

But this year's Santa Anita Derby comes on the heels of a 24-day suspension of racing at the facility, following the deaths of 22 horses. A 23rd horse, the 5-year-old colt Arms Runner, was euthanized on Sunday -- just two days after the track reopened -- after he fell and collided with another horse during the San Simeon Stakes.

Neither the California Horse Racing Board nor the Stronach Group would comment on a contingency plan for Saturday, should a fatal accident occur in the two days leading up to the crown jewel.

The park says no horses have been withdrawn from the Santa Anita Derby due to concerns over concerns over the latest deaths.

As early morning training sessions continue this week, the mood at Santa Anita can be described as cautiously optimistic.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert -- whose robust roster of trainees includes recent Triple Crown winners Justify and American Pharoah -- plans to race two up-and-coming horses this weekend. His undefeated 3-year-old colt, Game Winner, will go head-to-head against some of the fastest horses around the country.

"Luckily, I haven't had any issues," Baffert told reporters during the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's media teleconference on Tuesday. "If I thought there was a danger out there, I wouldn't even leave my horses out there. I'm feeling good about what's going on here, but I don't want to jinx myself."

What has changed at the park since the closure?

Unusually Handsome. Bob's Sniper. General Mo. The thoroughbred race horses are among a field of 10 contenders who will run the first race Thursday afternoon.

Their trip is relatively short -- just over 3/4 of a mile.

But all eyes will be down the stretch, to watch for each horse to safely step over the finish line.

The deaths of nearly two dozen horses at the park since December have been baffling. Many people connected with the park believe that rain has been a factor in the horses' deaths, but not all agree why. Southern California has just had its wettest winter in almost a decade.

Over the last 17 days, horse trainers and handlers have reformed practices to include new safety protocols mandated by the CHRB -- the state's independent agency which grants licenses, promotes race safety, and regulates betting.

The CHRB voted unanimously to prohibit jockeys from using whips to encourage their horses to move forward, unless the safety of the rider or horse are compromised. Improper use could result in fines, suspension or forfeiture from purse winnings.

The board has also voted to phase out the administration of same-day medications. Veterinarians and trainers will be required to give enough time for steroidal and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications to clear a horse's system before race day. Both types of medication can often mask the true extent of an animal's injuries.

The changes went into effect when Santa Anita Park re-opened on March 29.

"We're back to normal, but there's a lot of anxiety and apprehension -- no question," said Santa Anita Park spokesperson Mike Willman.

"(The new procedures) have worked very, very well," Willman said. "I think everybody's embraced them. We know how important it is to be as proactive as we can possibly be."

After Arms Runner's death on Sunday, the park said the track was safe.

"While this incident happened during competition on a track that has been deemed by independent experts to be safe, we are working closely with the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) to understand if there was anything additional that we could have done to prevent today's tragedy," the park said in a statement.

"Today's incident speaks to the larger issue of catastrophic injuries in horse racing that The Stronach Group together with our industry stakeholders are working to solve throughout California and across the country," it stated.

The investigation continues

This week, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to CHRB Chairman Chuck Winner, calling for suspension of horse racing at Santa Anita Park until the causes of the deaths are fully investigated.

"The death of a single horse is a tragedy, but as a lifelong lover of horses, I'm appalled that almost two dozen horses have died in just four months," Feinstein wrote. She also asked whether the board will consider the "complete elimination of medications such as Lasix and the use of synthetic track surfaces."

Of the 23 deceased horses, the CHRB has received 21 necropsy reports. The agency is currently waiting for additional information gleaned from interviews which take place following necropsy procedures. A complete investigation could take months.

The CHRB says Winner has not yet received the letter from Feinstein, but is aware of it.

In a statement, Winner said the CHRB -- under state law -- does not carry the authority to suspend racing. Any action with regard to racing dates requires a public hearing, and 10-day public notice.

The board has called for a special meeting on April 12, as it continues to work with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office on a joint investigation.

Feinstein's letter is resonating with animal rights proponents like PETA, who have led the charge to ban all drugs entirely and move events onto a synthetic track.

"Sen. Feinstein's call ... is welcome and sensible and should be nationwide to end the bloodbath in every racing state," PETA said in a statement. "If horses need therapeutic medications, they shouldn't be running. The board must ban trainers who drug horses, instead of assessing paltry fines."

How the fans feel

Despite the negative attention the park has received, track officials say they expect large crowds to gather at Santa Anita on Saturday for the main event.

For many long-time fans, however, this rash of deaths has turned them away from watching. "We don't want to be a part of that, anymore" racing fan Daniel Barcenas told CNN affiliate KCAL/KCBS.

Barcenas says he witnessed Arms Runner fall to his death while enjoying the day with his family. He didn't stick around to watch the rest of the day's races.

"It hurts us to see that happen to the horses," Barcenas said.

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