The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has informed members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that it has assigned investigators to look into the circumstances under which trainers and veterinarians may have been involved in the deaths of 23 horses at Santa Anita Park
Racetrack since late December.
As that was developing, a bill written by a local member of Congress which could bring increased accountability to the sport of kings was introduced for reconsideration.
Meanwhile, a horse racing official acknowledged that the racehorse deaths at the Santa Anita track might prove to be a “Blackfish” moment for the horse racing industry.
“It could, it could,” said Rick Baedeker, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board in a March 14 interview with FOX News. “It’s at risk.”
The critically acclaimed documentary “Blackfish” focused on the treatment of killer whales living at SeaWorld and led to widespread criticism of the popular water park.
As the documentary continued to air on CNN and on YouTube, public opinion began to shift against the park, leading to a dramatic drop in attendance. Compounding the park’s economic problems, dozens of celebrities and entertainers canceled appearances. PETA also protested a SeaWorld float entered in the 2014 Rose Parade.
But it could be far worse for Santa Anita. In California, voters have the power to ban the sport in the state.
“The voters authorized horseracing in 1933 and they have the ultimate call,” Baedeker explained.
Animal rights activists have been successful in ending animal competitions.
In November, Florida voters approved a state constitutional amendment that will end dog racing by 2021. The ban received 69 percent of the vote; it needed 60 percent to pass. The amendment means dog racing at Florida’s 11 greyhound tracks will be shuttered and just six active greyhound racing tracks in five US states will remain.
Although no one is calling for a ballot measure, the scrutiny on Santa Anita may be at an all-time high due to the racehorse deaths since Dec. 26.
Track officials indefinitely canceled horseracing at the Arcadia track on March 5 — including the facility’s biggest race of the year, the March 9 Santa Anita Handicap. Officials have said they plan to reopen on March 29.
Some experts claim that the unusually high volume of rain that has fallen on the region in recent weeks has indirectly led to more injuries to the legs of the horses. Rainfall totaling more than 11 inches has forced track officials to take precautions, leaving the track much harder than usual.
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 a half-ton and run on spindly ankles.
According to the weather forecast, more rain was scheduled to fall on the San Gabriel Valley this week.
PETA has long blamed the horse deaths and injuries on overmedicating the animals.
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.
After the last horse was euthanized on Thursday, officials at the track began taking drastic steps on their own to reform things.
Also on Thursday, Congress took steps to increase accountability in the sport. US Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena) reintroduced the Horseracing Integrity Act, a bill Chu co-authored with Rep. Andy Barr (R-Kentucky) and Rep. Paul Tonk (D-New York).
The bill would ban the use of medication in the 24 hours prior to a race. It would also introduce uniform national standards for horseracing to replace the hodgepodge of regulations from 38 state racing commissions.
The bill was first introduced in 2017. During congressional hearings last year, some industry stalwarts railed against the ban on race day medication.
On Thursday, officials at the track banned all same-day medication, including Lasix, a powerful diuretic which removes excess fluid from horses. They also banned the whipping of horses.
Lasix has been administered to horses before races for the past 40 years as a way to reduce or prevent bleeding, according to Equine Health Labs. Because it reduces plasma volume, some experts believe it reduces blood pressure in the lungs and prevents bleeding from occurring.
“We will wait no longer for the industry to come together as one to institute these changes,” wrote Belinda Stronach chairwoman and president of the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. “Nor will we wait for the legislation required to undertake this paradigm shift. We are taking a stand and fully recognize just how disruptive this might be.”
PETA, which called for the end of whipping and the use of drugs, called the decision to ban race day drugging a watershed moment.
“This groundbreaking plan, which PETA has pushed for, will not bring back the 22 horses who have died recently,” said PETA Spokesperson David Pearle in a prepared statement. Pearle’s comments were made just prior to the last death, which occurred on March 14. “But it will prevent the deaths of many more and will set a new standard for racing that means less suffering for thoroughbreds at this track.”
Members of PETA were scheduled to protest at the district attorney’s office last Wednesday and called on LA County DA Jackie Lacey to order a criminal investigation into the trainers whose horses died in the last three months.
PETA was a critical part in the battle waged against SeaWorld for its treatment of orcas.
“These are seismic shifts for racing,” said Baedeker. “These are things that have been talked about for years. This situation calls for bold action. They have taken bold action and I applaud them for it.” n