Battle of Midway had a bright future by all accounts.
Last year, the 5-year old horse won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and finished third in the Kentucky Derby.
In his last start, Battle of Midway won the San Pasqual Stakes by a half-length on Feb. 2 and increased his record to eight wins in 16 starts, earning $1.5 million.
But all of that came to an end in late February when the horse shattered his right hind pastern bone during a workout at Santa Anita Park Racetrack. The injury forced Battle of Midway’s owners to euthanize him, according to the Daily Racing Form.
“He gave us so much, and it’s such a terrible loss. We are devastated,” said trainer Fernando Diaz-Valdes, co-owner of the Don Alberto Stable.
“We were so excited about him. He was coming into peak form and we were excited for the future of this year — the Breeders’ Cup, Dubai World Cup, you name it,” Diaz-Valdes said. “We tried our best to save him, but the vet said there was nothing we could do. We had to do what was best for the horse.”
Officials indefinitely canceled horseracing at Santa Anita on March 5 — including the track’s biggest race of the year, the Santa Anita Handicap, which was scheduled for last Saturday — after owners were forced to put down 20 other horses that were injured between Dec. 26 and March 8 at Santa Anita, placing increased scrutiny on the venue.
On March 9 track officials announced new rules that force owners to apply for permission 24 hours in advance of intense workouts. In addition, before those workouts can be conducted veterinarians must evaluate the horses. A new position of Director of Equine Welfare, which will be held by an accredited veterinarian, is also being created. The director will be responsible for the oversight of all aspects of equine well-being and will lead a new rapid response team for injuries. That team will be tasked with conducting transparent investigations of all factors involving the injury, as well the communication of their findings to the public.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called for reviews of horses’ past races and workout times, along with more physical examinations, and investigations into how often horses are medicated to mask injuries. The group is also calling for veterinary records that stay with horses throughout their lives, to ensure that injuries aren’t hidden.
“The entire racing industry must own up to the bloodbath on racetracks across the country,” said PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo.
A Winter Soaking
Some experts believe the track may have been impacted by the unusually high volume of rain that has fallen on the region this year. The 11 inches of rain that was accompanied by unusually cold temperatures that impacted the Southland in February may have left the track extra hard due to precautions taken by track officials.
After every rainstorm, officials seal the track by tightly packing dirt to prevent the rain from oversaturating the running area, according to NBC News. But some experts believe the process makes the track too hard and unforgiving for animals that weigh more than half a ton and run on spindly ankles.
“These numbers are highly unusual, which speaks to the concern that a common factor such as track condition, whether too hard or too soft, too much grip or too much slip, can play a major role,” Jose Garcia-Lopez, director of Equine Sports Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts, told the Pasadena Weekly.
The track was initially shut down for two days in late February. During that time, officials called in Dr. Mick Peterson of the University of Kentucky to perform ground radar testing on the track. After testing was completed, Peterson cleared the track to be reopened. But almost immediately, it became clear that things were not ok when two more horses had to be euthanized in less than a week.
Additional track testing is being done using a device that mimics the impacts of a horse running at full gallop, allowing engineers to see how the track holds up. These test results will be evaluated to ensure track consistency and uniformity for both training and racing. A comprehensive evaluation of all existing safety measures and current protocols is also being conducted.
The inner exercise track reopened for workouts on Friday. The inner track is not considered dangerous and no horses have suffered life-threatening injuries there during the crisis.
“Like all athletes, horses need to stay active, so this is a good decision for their overall health since it allows our horses to get out of their stalls and keeps them moving to aid their digestion,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert in a prepared statement.
The conditions of the inner track will be closely monitored as the horses begin using it. Use of the inner exercise track will be restricted to galloping or jogging.
“The safety, health and welfare of the horses and jockeys is our top priority,” Tim Ritvo, COO of Santa Anita’s parent company The Stronach Group, said in a statement. “While we are confident further testing will confirm the soundness of the track, the decision to close is the right thing to do at this time.”
Built for Speed
As Professor Garcia-Lopez of Tufts University pointed out, “Horses are extremely strong, athletic and powerful. However, they can be fragile, as their bones, joints, tendons and ligaments are placed under a large degree of stress.”
A horse’s leg contains 80 of the 205 bones in the animal’s body, according to the National Livestock Journal.
With no muscles below its knees, an intricate system of tendons and ligaments are powered by tremendous muscles high in the body, allowing the animals to sprint at high speeds.
But the bones are so light that instead of fracturing, as a human’s would, a horse’s bones shatter, which makes the leg almost impossible to repair.
Because equine circulation is dependent on the horse’s hooves, keeping a horse still for a long time puts the animal’s life at risk and forces owners to have hundreds of injured horses killed every year.
In 2012, The New York Times reported that 24 horses died each week at racetracks around the United States, many of those deaths the product of over-medication and poor oversight. In recent years, after reforms by state racing regulators, the death rate has declined.
In 2017, there were 20 horses euthanized after injuries related to 8,463 starts over a span of 122 racing days at Santa Anita, according to the Daily Racing Form. Last year, 22 horses were put down.
PETA’s Guillermo said there are some things that can be done now to make improvements in the lives of the animals.
“Medications must be banned entirely in the week before a race, beating horses with a whip to push them ever harder must stop, and racing injured horses just to give bettors options to put money on must be prohibited,” Guillermo said. “These animals aren’t machines to be driven mercilessly.”