If you read any of my recent columns you will not be surprised to know that my new mantra regarding racing reform is, “If you are not doing everything, you are not doing enough.”
With that mantra in mind, there are some equine safety initiatives that, given our current state of horse racing, should be considered no-brainers. This is super-duper doubly true when the apparent lack of safety protocols occurs only a few miles from the epicenter of U.S. racing’s hotspot — Santa Anita Park.
On Friday, June 28, 2019, Dan Ross wrote for Thoroughbred Daily News (TDN), the following in an aptly named piece, “Racing And The Hot Seat Switches To Los Alamitos”:
Santa Anita increased the presence of regulatory veterinarians to watch morning training, and Liebau said that an extra veterinarian will "probably" be brought in during the morning at Los Alamitos to perform a similar role.
Santa Anita adopted another layer of scrutiny, requiring trainers to alert the racing office 48 hours before workouts, giving the track an opportunity to review the horse's record and conduct a physical examination, if necessary. When asked if Los Alamitos would mirror that program, Liebau said it's not up to the racetrack to "second-guess" the trainers.
"We are not requiring trainers to get permission to work horses because first, I'm not too sure that system works," he said. "I guess I have a great deal of trust in our trainers, and as I said, I think our trainers and everybody concerned with horses have their best interest at heart."
Before I comment on the remarks of Mr. Liebau, vice president of the Los Alamitos Racing Association, I’ll add some perspective by juxtaposing some results from Santa Anita’s just-concluded race meet. The Paulick Report posted the following on the same day of the TDN story in a piece titled, “The Stronach Group Reports 58 Percent Decrease In Racing Fatalities At Santa Anita”:
“Since the new rules took effect in the middle of March, Santa Anita Park has seen significant improvement, including a 58 percent decrease in the number of fatalities during racing. We have seen an even greater decrease – approximately 80 percent – during training.” (emphasis added)
Los Alamitos has decided not to continue what appears to be an extremely successful The Stronach Group initiative that requires 48 hours’ notice and a strict vetting process prior to working a horse.
It has yet to be determined whether such an initiative will become an industry model in other states. Regardless, for any California track, at this time, not to implement such a safeguard is simply reckless. The media, public, and all racing industry participants deserve better.
The reasons given by Los Alamitos are simply lame.
Mr. Liebau said, referring to the Santa Anita pre-notification system, “I’m not too sure that system works.”
Mr. Liebau, are you not familiar with the results from Santa Anita? What level of certainty of effectiveness do you require? What will you say when that first horse breaks down during a morning work? Will you mumble some old-school nonsense such as, “Oh, well, horses die all the time”?
Mr. Liebau goes on to say, "I guess I have a great deal of trust in our trainers, and as I said, I think our trainers and everybody concerned with horses have their best interest at heart."
My first reaction was, OMG, did he really say that?
The recent Michael Pender case is instructive. In the Pender case, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) disciplined trainer Michael Pender for working out the horse “New Karma” and entering it to race knowing it had a fractured leg.
The biggest takeaway from the 161-page transcript of the stewards hearing was testimony from Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the CHRB:
“If I knew that this horse had these radiographs, I would know he had a structural problem. It’s very easy to manage a horse even with a fracture like this to make it look good. That’s part of the problem why we’re in this situation at Santa Anita. It’s very easy to make a horse look good, either by medication or by training patterns.”
That’s right. Trainers sometimes train a horse through an injury in an effort to get one more start or to lose a horse in a claiming race. According to Michael Pender, he’d do it again. And now at Los Alamitos, the track will not be asking any pesky questions of trainers before a horse works.
From an equine safety standpoint, the best thing about the Los Alamitos race meet is that it is mercifully short. Closing day is July 16, the day before racing begins at Del Mar.