LOS ANGELES, United States (AFP) - A 22nd horse has died at California's Santa Anita racetrack, officials confirmed Thursday, dealing a fresh blow to the course as it reels from a sharp rise in equine fatalities.
The Daily Racing Form website reported that three-year-old filly Princess Lili B broke down near the finish line on Santa Anita's main track.
The horse was euthanized after being diagnosed with two broken front legs, making her the 22nd horse to die at Santa Anita since December 26.
"We're just perplexed by what has happened, and devastated," Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for Santa Anita's owners The Stronach Group told Fox 11 television after the fatality.
"We have complete confidence in the track, with the greatest track crew in America, and it's just a devastating time for all of us," Ritvo said, adding it was too early to say how the horse suffered its injuries.
"The rider said the filly felt fine, and then all of a sudden, just went bad," Ritvo said.
The fatality is another hammer blow to Santa Anita, the famed course outside Los Angeles which will host the prestigious Breeders Cup international meeting in November.
The latest injury occurred during a training run. Racing at Santa Anita has been suspended indefinitely since March 5.
Officials had been targeting a reopening of the track on March 22 following an investigation into the surface by safety experts last week.
The California Horse Racing Board said in a statement it continued to monitor the situation and noted the crisis would be discussed at a meeting on March 21.
"Like so many others, the California Horse Racing Board is greatly disturbed by this latest fatality and is committing its resources to helping identify the cause or causes of these fatalities and taking remedial action as necessary," Mike Marten, the spokesman for the state racing authority, said in a statement.
- 'Watershed moment' -
Track safety experts have studied the course at Santa Anita but have so far been unable to pinpoint the reasons for the upsurge in deaths. Some have blamed it on the torrential rain that has deluged Southern California in recent months.
Between December 2017 and February 2018, 10 horses died at the track, compared with eight in 2016-17 and 14 in 2015-16.
The track has averaged about 50 fatalities per year from 2008-18, according to data from the California Horse Racing Board.
Santa Anita's owners, The Stronach Group, said later Thursday they would introduce a policy of zero tolerance of horses being administered medication on race day, both at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California.
"We have arrived at a watershed moment," Belinda Stronach said in a statement. "The Stronach Group has long been a strong advocate for the abolishment of race-day medication, but we will wait no longer for the industry to come together as one to institute these changes.
"Nor will we wait for the legislation required to undertake this paradigm shift. We are taking a stand and fully recognize just how disruptive this might be."
Animal rights campaigners welcomed the Stronach Group's safety initiatives.
Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), applauded Stronach for "standing up to all the trainers, veterinarians, and owners who have used any means —- from the whip to the hypodermic syringe -— to force injured or unfit horses to run."
"This is a watershed moment for racing, and PETA urges every track to recognize that the future is now and to follow suit," Guillermo said.
"This ground-breaking plan will not bring back the 22 horses who have died recently, but it will prevent the deaths of many more and will set a new standard for racing that means less suffering for Thoroughbreds at this track.
"Racing must go the way of the animal circus, but this will eliminate some of the misery on its way out."