The horse deaths at Santa Anita have created an uncertain future in an industry that employs many thousands of people, from the very highest income brackets to the very lowest. What does this mean for the future of the sport?
On the second-to-last day in December, a four-year-old gelding named Psychedelicat was loaded into the starting gate at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, where he would run for the 18th time in his undistinguished career, in a $16,000 claiming race at one mile on the dirt. He was sent off at 6-1 odds, fourth choice in the field of eight, which was appropriate to his status: Psychedelicat had won just two of his previous 17 starts, and finished third on five other occasions, with lifetime earnings of a little more than $53,000. In his favor, one of those victories had come two months earlier on this same track, a neck win in a slightly lower class race. He earned $10,800 for his connections, matching the biggest score of his life.
On this day, running on a track designated as "fast," Psychedelicat 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 much 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 did not make news, because it is not an uncommon occurrence. A 2012 study by The New York Times found that, at that time, 24 horses died each week at U.S. racetracks. That number has since declined, but not to the point where horse breakdowns and deaths are a rarity. They are not. They are a part of the sport of thoroughbred racing, painful and controversial. Horses die, tears are shed and the business of racing lurches forward. It has been ever thus and for reasons both innocent and nefarious. Many people understand and accept this. Many others do not.
But Psychedelicat’s anonymous demise 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 four-year-old filly Lets Light the Way was euthanized on the track after a leg injury during a morning training run on March 5, 21 horses had died at Santa Anita in 66 days, a stunning total. They had died in races and in training, on dirt and on grass. They had been undistinguished commoners like Psychedelicat and they had been champions like Battle Of Midway, a five-year-old former Breeders’ Cup winner who was one of two horses that died on Feb. 23. On March 5, the track was closed, and the racing surface inspected.
Eight days later, it reopened. There were protestors on the grounds. There were satellite trucks, on death watch. "When I had [Triple Crown winners] Justify and American Pharoah in my barn here, we couldn’t get satellite trucks out to talk about racing," says trainer Bob Baffert, the most famous person in the sport. "It was pretty tough to see it that day." It got worse. On the second day after the track re-opened, three-year-old maiden (winless) filly Princess Lili B broke both front ankles in a morning workout and was euthanized. Number 22.
Again, the track was closed, but this time many more people were watching. The deaths at Santa Anita had become a national story, and appropriately so. The activist group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) mobilized aggressively. Interloping media who do not regularly report on racing and might be unaware of important details, called for drastic action. (Among them was Robin Lundberg, who is employed by Sports Illustrated as co-host of SI Now, a digital studio show, and who said, among other comments, "I have no idea why horse racing is still a thing.") The sport found itself under heavy scrutiny at a time of year when it usually enters a welcoming spotlight—Triple Crown season.
On 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 and is one of the most powerful entities in the sport—issued an "open letter" (her designation) proposing sweeping change. Among them: A zero-tolerance ban on the use of the controversial race-day diuretic Lasix, which is used by more than 95% of U.S. thoroughbreds; increased limitations on various non-race day anti-inflammatory medications, shockwave therapy and anabolic steroids; transparency in veterinary records; and a mandate that the riding crop—or whip—be used only as a safety measure. Stronach’s letter quoted the support of a PETA vice president, which startled many in the racing community, because of PETA’s virulent anti-racing stance.
Two days later, The Stronach Group and California thoroughbred owners 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 maximum Lasix dosage will be halved in the present, and two-year-old horses running in 2020 will not be allowed to use Lasix at all. Other elements of Stronach’s letter remained in effect.
Okay. Full stop.
The horse deaths at Santa Anita, and the subsequent rule changes, have roiled the sport, leaving far more questions than answers and creating an uncertain future in an industry that employs many thousands of people, from the very highest income brackets to the very lowest. A ban on medication brings California racing in line with other countries around the world, but it is unknown if other U.S. jurisdictions—Kentucky, New York, Maryland and Florida being most significant—will follow suit. We are in the nascent days of what is likely to become massive change in a centuries-old sport. "I think it’s safe to say we’re entering into a new era," says trainer Graham Motion, who is based in Maryland, not California, and trained 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and many other top horses. "This really feels like a bit of a watershed moment. [California and Stronach] have gone out on a limb here. I don’t see how you can bring that back." What this new era will look like, no one knows with any certainty.
There are parts of the movement that are not orderly. On the day of a 22nd death, Stronach undertook massive—and possibly well-intentioned—medication bans. This would seem to indicate a plausible cause-and-effect between medication (in particular Lasix) and breakdowns. But there is little evidence of that causation. More on Lasix in a minute, but broad strokes, it is a drug designed to limit exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging—bleeding into the lungs, or in extreme examples, through the nostrils—in horses under duress. There are good arguments for removing Lasix from the sport, but little evidence that it causes horses to break down. Richard Mandella, a Hall of Fame trainer based in California for more than four decades, says, "I can’t correlate breakdowns to Lasix. I really don’t know how you would correlate, unless you know something I don’t."
Many California trainers point instead to the heavy rains that have inundated Southern California this winter, after many years of drought. Every race track bears its own characteristics, but in general California tracks are less weather-durable than tracks in more variable climates. "It’s the racing surface that’s hurting horses, not the medication," says Baffert, who has not lost any horses this winter. "The surface and the weather. The track has been heavier and deeper." Baffert said 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 his very wealthy owners, and 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."
Mandella added: "I don’t know what’s been causing the breakdowns, but when the track doesn’t look good to me, I stay away from it." This all makes plenty of sense.
Santa Anita is continuing to evaluate its racing surface, but is currently open for training. Racing will resume on March 29. There will be satellite trucks. And there will be protestors.
But it is fair to argue that the medication ban, as a response to the breakdowns, was at least in some part a misdirection. However, it is also possible that good can come from the ban. Both of these things can be true. Lasix was first made legal for U.S. racing in the 1970s and has been controversial almost from the start. It is the designated hitter of racing. I first wrote at length about Lasix in the mid-’80s—when there was a $5 million bonus for winning the Triple Crown—but New York, home of the Belmont Stakes, did not allow Lasix, creating a thorny inequality. It does now, as does 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. Motion is regarded as one of the cleanest trainers in America, yet he uses Lasix. "I’m not holier than thou when it comes to Lasix," he says. "I don’t want my horses to be at a disadvantage, if they’re running against horses who are using Lasix."
Hence, Lasix is regarded by many as a performance-enhancer. I asked Motion. His answer: "Of course it is." But Motion also says, "Do I think Lasix is a problem? 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 alone. The Stronach Group also owns Pimlico (the crumbling home of the Preakness) and Laurel in Maryland and Gulfstream Park in Florida, and has not proposed new medication rules at any of those tracks. New York and Kentucky have stood pat, leaving two California Californiatracks in a precarious position, either leading a revolution or dying alone. (Two other California tracks, Del Mar and Los Alamatos, have not instituted Lasix bans, although they will be pressured to do so). I asked Mandella if the new rule could be a significant blow to California racing. "Could be," he said. "Definitely could be." 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 eventually set up shop elsewhere.
The disparate interests of racing jurisdictions are an age-old problem. Racing is made up of fiefdoms, each acting in their own self-interest. There is little doubt that drug-free racing across America would vastly improve the sport’s image. But uniformity is a distant hope. "Racing needs a national governing body," says David Israel, a horse owner and former chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. He proposes a voting board, a commissioner and a staff that would mandate uniform rules on "competition, medication, animal welfare and jockey welfare." Says Israel: "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. In four decades covering the sport and spending hundreds of hours walking the backstretch at tracks from Saratoga to Del Mar, I’m convinced that the vast majority of workers in the racing industry are passionate horse lovers. Of course there are exceptions; life has few absolutes. Hollendorfer told me this week, "I’d like people to come to the backside and see how we treat these horses. This is our life back there, and we do it all because we love the horse." (Hollendorfer said he once made this same argument to a PETA representative and was told, "If you love horses, you’re in the wrong business.”)
And the reality is challenging: As much as the backstretch community collectively loves horses, they also rely on them for their livelihood. It was 14 years ago that Gretchen Jackson, owner of the ill-fated Barbaro, told me, before Barbaro was injured: "These horses are not our pets." 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. Last weekend, one of the owners whose horses Mandella trains posted a video of Mandella nuzzling and petting a horse in the saddling paddock. "I would just say that the great majority of people in the horse business love horses and love racing," says Mandella. "And saying that: The horses do, too."
Motion leaned into that one, too: "At the end of the day, the horses enjoy doing this. 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 and Mandella argue otherwise. The truth is that nobody knows. Not the trainers. Not PETA. Only the horses know and they can’t tell us. This is a complicated ecosystem, with no simple answers.
In all of this, there is one thing we know to be true: Soon enough, another horse will die. The people nearest to that horse will grieve his absence and try to do better. And the people furthest away will blame them for his death. Somewhere in the gulf between these emotions is a solution.