Santa Anita officials hope positive changes come from spotlight shone on racecourse following 35 equine fatalities in under a year
- Animal rights groups and politicians have heaped pressure on racecourse
- Circuit is hosting this weekend’s huge Breeders’ Cup meeting in California
- Officials claim that changes to medication rules are already making difference
Officials at Santa Anita hope positive changes for the good of racing in the US can emerge from the troubles the track has endured in the run-up to this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup meeting.
It is the 10th time the Breeders’ Cup had been held at the track in the meeting’s 36-year history but an uncomfortable spotlight has been shone on the Southern California racecourse which has suffered 35 equine fatalities since Boxing Day.
Animal rights groups and politicians have heaped pressure on Santa Anita and the results of an enquiry by the California Horse Racing Board are due to be made public next month.
Animal rights protesters have campaigned outside the Southern Californian race course
But officials claim changes to medication rules in particular are already having an impact at Santa Anita and that these changes could be the catalyst for wider reform into tightening up medication rules across the entire US racing industry.
Changes at Santa Anita have included not allowing the use of anti-inflammatories to be administered within 48 hours of a race – it was previously 24 hours.
Injections into joints are not allowed under 14 days before a race.
The changes in withdrawal times are designed to remove the chance of a masked injury not being picked up in veterinary inspections.
Changes to the rules at Santa Anita regarding the previously permitted Lasix, which stops the breaking of fragile blood vessels in the lungs, will also be introduced next year on two-year-olds who will then race Lasix-free throughout their careers.
Dr Dionne Benson, Chief Veterinary Officer for The Stronach Group which owns Santa Anita, said: ‘I think the changes have been fairly well accepted here.
‘Everyone accepts how important it is that we do everything we can to race medication-free. With these changes we can state we are consistent with places like Europe.
‘As we go East from here it will be more of a challenge but it has to be something we have to consider in the US. We own tracks in Florida and Maryland so we have started to broach those subjects.
Santa Anita is playing host to the Breeders’ Cup and the spotlight is on US racing
‘Nothing can be done unilaterally but we are discussing with horsemen how we may make these changes.
‘They have been very receptive but Lasix will be a sticking point. It is something we have to figure how to work together to get the right solution.’
Given the raft of US stallions that raced on Lasix, it has always seemed likely some in the breeding industry in America would oppose change.
Benson added: ‘There are many (US-bred) horses which go to Europe and do very well so the idea Lasix-use is bred into them and they can’t race without it, does not comes out in the wash.
‘But we have a generation of trainers who have not trained without it. In Europe, they treat bleeders differently. Part of the reason we did not want to do a full stop on Lasix is because we have to learn how to train and race without it.’
There are 1,800 horses trained at Santa Anita. Injury and fatality rates have fallen since changes, which include use of the whip during training exercise, were introduced.
It is the 10th time the Breeders’ Cup had been held at the track in the meeting’s 36-year history
There will be pressure to do more including the wider replacement of the traditional US Dirt tracks with the synthetic surfaces used at Britain’s All-Weather venues.
Benson said her team and employers are committed to change.
The worry will be staying in control of events. A high-profile equine fatality at the Breeders’ Cup which has nationwide TV coverage on the NBC channel would be potent ammunition for the sport’s opponents.
In liberal California especially, pressure would become even tougher to withstand.
Benson said: ‘It’s hard because any time a horse dies it is front-page news but the focus of this company is to make racing safe.’