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Santa Anita a Death Trap for Horses? Why So Many Have Died There

Written by:
Alejandro Botticelli
Published on:
Dec/07/2021

Controversy continues to surround the storied California Race Track, Santa Anita, and at the center of the latest storm we find a familiar face in Bob Baffert, writes Jeffrey May of AS.com.

2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit was the latest casualty on Monday.  Baffert trained Medina Spirit.  The New York Racing Association had sanctioned Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer, after Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test.

Baffert has been embraced at Santa Anita however.

But here is the true stunner: 20 horses have so far died at that California race track....in just this past year.  37 died in 2019, prepandemic as there wasn't much action in 2020.

The Los Angeles District Attorney concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing following a brief closure earlier this year.

Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said, “Horses’ lives are at risk. We wouldn’t suggest that an airplane should be allowed to take off if half the seat belts hadn’t been installed yet. Why should horses be raced if every precaution hasn’t been taken?”

According to the New York Times, nearly 10 horses a week on average died at American racetracks in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. That figure is anywhere from two and a half to five times greater than the fatality rate in Europe and Asia, where rules against performance-enhancing drugs are enforced more stringently.

At the heart of tragic deaths at Santa Anita, many place the blame on the Canada-based Stronach Group, which has owned the track for two decades, to maximize profits.

Medina-Spirit-Baffert.png

Pictured Above:

Bob Baffert brings Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit out for fans to see on the morning after the race. Medina Spirit is Baffert's seventh Kentucky Derby winner. May 2, 2021

Pat McDonogh/The Courier Journal

The Stronach Group consists of Frank Stronach, Belinda Stronach and Tim Ritvo.  They are the brains behind the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in Florida, which features a $16 million purse.

"No question the Stronach Group and the Stronach family invest in horse racing," National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO Alex Waldrop said. "They do invest heavily in the business, and you've got to acknowledge that and thank them for that."

They are also prone to in-fighting amongst one another.  Frank has sued his own daughter, Belinda, and she has countersued her dad.  Frank's 2019 suit was for over $500 million in Ontario Superior Court alleging Belinda and her children mismanaged the family's assets and conspired to take control of them.  They eventually settled outside of court.

East Coast officials, in particular, have criticized the Stronach Group for being slow to react and institute reforms.

From the New York Times:

The push to boost revenues required a relentless racing schedule, the people said, despite unusually rainy and cold weather in Southern California that might have made the track less safe. Of the 30 deaths, 11 occurred during training, when horses were presumably not going full speed, suggesting problems with the track’s surface.

And to increase betting, track managers held more races with bigger fields, which put intense pressure on trainers to race horses that may not have had enough rest or been in the proper condition, owners and trainers said.

The track tolerated trainers who had been cited for using performance-affecting drugs, records showed. Experts have long considered drugs a leading cause of horse deaths. Not only do they dull pain and mask injuries, letting at-risk horses run when they should not, but they make horses unnaturally stronger and faster, increasing stress on their limbs.

As much as the Stronach Group receives praise for their successful endeavors in the world of horse racing, the deaths at Santa Anita have more groups calling for an end to the sport.

Maureen Callahan, editor for the New York Post, says "it’s long past time for this so-called sport to disappear".

“Medina Spirit’s [death] is the biggest . . . in horse racing currently,” Patrick Battuello, founder and president of Horseracing Wrongs, tells the Post. “But pubescent horses collapsing and dying — this is just business as usual.”

The Stronach Group appears to be taking these concerns more seriously. 

An executive from 1/ST Racing, a division of the Stronach Group, announced Aug. 17 that TSG would prohibit the cargo ship transport of horses leaving its facilities.  The shipment technique is widely viewed as inhumane.

In October, 1/ST Racing began circulating a memo warning of the use of buzzer devices and advising that "using any type of electrical device on a horse will receive a ban from all 1/ST Racing and Training facilities."

- Alejandro Botticelli, Gambling911.com

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