Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico and Laurel, joins Thoroughbred Safety Coalition

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Pimlico Race Course on Preakness day. Photo by World Red Eye.

The Stronach Group, owners of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, on Tuesday joined other racetrack operators to announce the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, a group proposing medical and structural reforms in horse racing to better protect the sport’s equine and human athletes.

The other organizations include the Breeders’ Cup Limited, Churchill Downs Inc., the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Keeneland Association Inc., and the New York Racing Association Inc.–a consortium that accounts for 84 percent of graded stakes races in the U.S.

Amid increased scrutiny over more than three dozen horse deaths at Santa Anita Park since last December, the race organizers are calling more reporting to veterinarians, additional drug tests and stricter regulations to enhance safety.

Among the proposals: increasing the withdrawal time for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to 48 hours, because these medicines “can also increase a horse’s ability to withstand pain, masking the potential severity of an underlying issue”; banning bisphosphonates that also mask pain and hurt the development of young horses; banning a practice known as “stacking” that uses multiple drugs to mask pain; requiring daily reporting to vets and regulators; performing drug tests on out-of-competition horses training to race; developing a universal rule on riding crop usage; creating universal safety standards and a steward at each track to enforce them.

“Addressing our industry’s safety challenges requires concrete action—with medical and operational reforms, including enhanced transparency, and improved information sharing,” the coalition said in announcing the reforms. “And more must be done. This is just the start.”

In a statement, Craig Fravel, CEO of racing for Stronach, said: “The Thoroughbred horse racing industry has reached a watershed moment where unprecedented reforms touching all areas of the sport must continue to be advanced and implemented. The Thoroughbred Safety Coalition represents a step toward greater accountability and transparency to put horse and rider safety and care at the forefront.”

While there is no clear-cut explanation for the spate of fatalities at Santa Anita, a Stronach-owned track in Los Angeles County, California, a number of possibilities have been suggested. Some have pointed to the track’s surface, which received a large amount of rain. In a June New York Times article, workers and state regulators faulted a “relentless” racing schedule pushed by the Stronach Group that called for bigger fields of horses.

“There was a big push to fill races, and some people haven’t been as cautious as they should have, on both sides,” Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, told the Times.

Belinda Stronach, chairwoman and president of the Stronach Group, refuted that claim, saying safety has always been paramount.

As the deaths at Santa Anita continued to mount and gain national media attention, activist pressure increased, eventually leading to Stronach temporarily halting operations at Santa Anita in March.

In April, when the death toll was still around 23 horses, Stronach implemented tighter controls on Lasix, a diuretic used by trainers to reduce bleeding from the lungs in horses during strenuous exercise, a common condition. Opponents contend the drug is a performance-enhancer–making horses lighter and faster because of how much they urinate before a race–and possibly a masking agent for other illegal substances.

Churchill Downs, the New York Racing Association and the owners of Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park and Remington Park, Los Alamitos Racecourse, Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs also joined in the effort.

The restriction begins for 2018 foals, who won’t race until next year, prohibiting stakes runners from receiving Lasix within 24 hours of a racing day. In 2020, the rule will apply to horses of all ages competing in stakes competition, but it does not cover runners in lower-tier races, such as allowance, claiming or maiden special weight classes.

With fatalities continuing into the summer, opposition to horse racing in California grew stronger. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill authorizing the California Horse Racing Board to shutdown tracks over animal safety concerns with little notice. In July, the Commissioner of Animal Services in Los Angeles considered suggesting the city council should ban the sport of kings altogether. An online petition in support of a statewide ban has more than 100,000 signatures.

U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein of California called for increased scrutiny of U.S. tracks in a June op-ed, citing Jockey Club data showing between 2.5 and 5 times as many racehorses die in America compared to other countries.

In the fall, she said the Breeders’ Cup, an annual showcase of the best talent with some of the biggest prize pools in the sport, at Santa Anita would be “a critical test for the future of horseracing in California and in the United States.”

Despite added precautions, including increased veterinary screenings, a 4-year-old gelding named Mongolian Groom suffered a leg fracture in the signature race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and was later euthanized, the track’s 37th death.

Following the race, Feinstein renewed calls to suspend operations at Santa Anita until the track “could ensure the safety of horses would be protected.” Feinstein yesterday joined Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) in sponsoring a bill to implement uniform drug testing.

Brandon Weigel

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