In response to a baffling surge of horse deaths at Santa Anita that has roiled the sport, the track’s owners Thursday banned the all race day medication and limited the use of whips.
The move, believed to be without precedent in North American racing, came hours after the 22nd horse died at Santa Anita since Dec. 26.
“We have arrived at a watershed moment,” Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of track owner The Stronach Group, wrote in an open letter.
Princess Lili B broke both front legs at the conclusion of a half-mile workout and was euthanized.
Santa Anita suspended racing last week in response to the previous deaths. Training resumed Wednesday and the track hoped to start racing again next week.
The new rules will also be used at Stronach-owned Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, Calif.
“There are some who will take a stand and tell you that it cannot be done,” Stronach wrote. “To them we say ‘the health and welfare of the horses will always come first.’ … The time to discuss ‘why’ these advancements must take place is over. The only thing left to discuss is ‘how.’”
Virtually every country outside North America bans the use of medication on race day. That includes furosemide, more commonly known as Lasix, that is supposed to lessen the risk of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. The drug is so common at U.S. tracks that results sheets note which horses were injected.
According to data compiled by The Jockey Club, only 3.6% of the 279,774 starts in the U.S. last year were made by horses without Lasix.
The drug is a potent diuretic that causes a horse to urinate 15 to 20 liters in the hours before a race.
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Nineteen of the 22 horses who have died at Santa Anita in the recent spike used Lasix, according to Equibase. Records for the three remaining horses weren’t available because they hadn’t participated in a race.
Lasix has been the subject of ferocious debate in the sport for decades. Some view it as enhancing performance and potentially damaging horses while others see it as harmless and essential to protecting equine health.
In addition to banning Lasix, The Stronach Group said it will increase bans on legal painkillers, anabolic steroids and shockwave therapy. The company also pledged “complete transparency” in veterinary records and increased out of competition drug testing.
As the drama played out at Santa Anita on Thursday, Congress moved to bring increased oversight to the sport. Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) reintroduced the Horseracing Integrity Act, which would ban the use of medication in the 24 hours before a race and introduce 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.
Rep. Judy Chu, whose district includes Santa Anita, co-sponsored the original bill.
Rick Baedeker, executive director the California Horse Racing Board, said he expects other tracks in California to follow Santa Anita’s lead but it has been too soon to hold discussions. He said the CHRB could pass its own requirements but that couldn’t take effect until the summer at the earliest. “I know the people at the tracks and would be surprised if they didn’t follow suit, he said.
Regarding the riding rule, he said whips would be used for “safety corrections, not urging.”
Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Governor Gavin Newsom, said, “Governor Newsom is troubled by the recent horse deaths at Santa Anita Park and is monitoring the situation closely.”
Staff writer Taryn Luna contributed to this report.
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