Santa Anita fatalities tied to pre-existing conditions

Santa Anita Racetrakc

Despite the publicity surrounding the wide-spread drugging revealed by an FBI investigation, an inquiry from the California Racing Board has revealed no illegal medications or procedures were involved with the 23 Santa Anita fatalities; instead, 21 of the horses had evidence pre-existing pathology at the site of their fatal injury. In plain English, the horses were training on old injuries that had not been properly rehabbed, and run hard sometimes in bad conditions.

  • 19 of the 22 catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries involved proximal sesamoid bone fractures, a site where fracture risk has been linked to racing and training intensity. (Note: Freedom was retired due to an apical sesamoid fracture. Kudos to his owners for rehabbing and then retiring him after the injury).
  • In 21 of the cases of catastrophic breakdown, the evidence of a pre-existing problem with the bone is presumed to be associated with high exercise intensity.
  • 11 of the horses had received corticosteroid injections into joints, five of them within 60 days of fatal injury, and two within 14 days of injury.
  • The overwhelming majority of the major breakdowns in this cluster involved the fetlock joints
  • 14 of 22 horses that had catastrophic injuries exhibited a high-intensity exercise profile followed by a decline in activity in the month before their fatal injury.
  • 7 out of 22 horses had a history of at least six months between race starts at some point in their respective careers, indicating past injuries.
  • 39% of the fatalities occurred on surfaces affected by wet weather, a concern noted by several trainers.

One of the major concerns identified by the report is the ignorance of many of the trainers and the sloppiness of their record keeping. Many had not previously reviewed the necropsy on their horses, did not have a good working knowledge of anatomy, or grasp the significance of pre-existing bone lesions. There were often large gaps in the historical information for several of the horses.

Other findings included:

  • In several cases, the training of the horses was subcontracted out to someone other than the licensed trainer listed with the California Horse Racing Board (this is called “program training”).
  • 16 of the horses who died were under the care of trainers with at least one other fatality within the preceding year.
  • Several trainers said they felt pressured to run their horses

Recommendations for improving track safety included:

  • Better and more accessible data on track conditions
  • Strict criteria for canceling racing based on weather and surface conditions.
  • Better health record keeping on horses by trainers and veterinarions, including a transition to digital rcords
  • Continuing education for trainers and attending veterinarians.

More specific recommendations for improving horses safety and welfare include:

  • More detail on recent exercise history to enable the board’s review panel to evaluate horses
  • Re-evaluation of workout criteria
  • Compulsory diagnostic imaging based on exercise history
  • Compulsory official examinations for horses returning from layoffs or making a belated racing debut.
  • Compulsory rests for horses based on the rate of accumulation of high-speed furlongs in training, or the number of recorded high-speed events.
  • Diagnostic work performed before joint injections.
  • Expanding the list of prohibited mediations and practices including but not limited to the use of bisphosphonates, extracorporeal shockwave therapy, thyroxine, and furosemide.
  • Expanding restrictions on medications that can be administered for workouts must be expanded and enforced.
  • Formalizing track veterinarian emergency procedures

The report also calls for further investigation into two issues:

  • Improving the understanding of the relationship between dorsal metacarpal/metatarsal disease and catastrophic injuries.
  • The potential association between crop use and serious musculoskeletal injury

For trainers, the report recommends that continuing education should be required as a condition of licensing with a focus on the etiology of common veterinary syndromes of the thoroughbred racehorse. And, licensing requirements for both trainers and assistant trainers should be expanded and potentially standardized on a national level, to include a specific length of apprenticeship or animal experience hours before eligibility to apply and the prohibition of program training.

So far, Santa Anita has seen a 64% reduction in catastrophic injuries in 2020, without any fatalities. Not exactly a stellar recommendation given the issues last year, but at least there is progress and a better understanding of what caused the previous carnage: overtraining, insufficient rehab, a lack of horsemanship, and the pressure to run horses to make money. Simple, right?

4 thoughts on “Santa Anita fatalities tied to pre-existing conditions

  1. This is fascinating and not what I expected at all. I had (wrongly) assumed that the fatalities were most likely related to track surface management. My takeaway from this report it is that it is far more likely stable management practices – pre-existing conditions not identified or investigated. There is so much room for improvement, which is actually encouraging, because it *is* fixable, or a least vast improvements can be made on current practices. IF the racing industry choose to make those changes. Which, unfortunately, is a big IF.

  2. I agree with the above comment. I, too, had wondered if it weren’t the track. Now it appears to me as if it was…and is…human negligence. I might be wrong, but it would seem that many ‘race horse trainers’ are (overwhelmingly) men who came to the sport/business without the fundamentals of equine care/anatomy/ etc. In the old days, when very rich people from Kentucky, Maryland, etc, who’d owned and raced TBs for generations, had horsemastery instilled in their DNA. They bred carefully. They trained carefully. Their staff, again, had in many cases been with the ‘farm’ for generations. Horses were Family.
    Now it is a Business, with big money looking to cash in on big purses without caring that it is a flesh and blood animal doing the work, not a machine that merely requires hay and oats to work. It’s Run Him Til He Drops
    It’s come to this point relatively rapidly, but it’s not too new. In Muriel Lennox’s book “Northern Dancer’, she quotes the owner (who’s name escapes me at the moment) as being amazed that Northern Dancer ‘seemed to recognize’ his mother, who would feed the stallion carrots every morning. He was so far removed from being a horseman that he didn’t believe that horses were intelligent enough to be able to recognize human beings.
    I mean,,, duh?

  3. The report surprised me, too. I think track surface did play a role (the wet conditions) but overwhelmingly it appears to be poor horsemanship, negligance and greed.

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