ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) — Santa Anita is facing enormous scrutiny, and not just because this weekend is the biggest race day of the year. The venerable track where superstars Seabiscuit and Zenyatta once thrilled fans is fighting for its future a month before the Kentucky Derby, with track officials struggling to answer for the deaths of 23 horses amid escalating criticism from inside and outside the sport.
The track has remained open — albeit under a uniquely sombre atmosphere — for training and racing since the latest death last weekend. On Saturday, it hosts the US$1 million Santa Anita Derby, the West Coast's major steppingstone for 3-year-old colts hoping to run in next month's Kentucky Derby.
Also on the 11-race card is the US$600,000 Santa Anita Handicap for older horses, a race postponed from March when the track was closed for nearly a month.
Last Sunday, Arms Runner fell during the San Simeon Stakes and broke his right front leg, requiring the gelding to be euthanized. It was the 23rd equine fatality since Dec. 26, and first since March 15.
"If I thought there was a danger out there, I wouldn't even leave my horses out there," said Bob Baffert, the five-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer who will saddle Derby hopefuls Game Winner and Roadster on Saturday. "The last few days, they've worked probably 2,000 horses and there hasn't been any issues."
Still, there are calls for the track to shut down until it can pinpoint precisely why the deaths have occurred. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Humane Society of the U.S. and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are among those urging a stoppage. U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, who represents Arcadia where the track is located, has asked Congress to hold a hearing and investigation.
"Senator Feinstein's call for the suspension of racing is welcome and sensible and should be nationwide to end the bloodbath in every racing state," said Kathy Guillermo, PETA's senior vice president. "The California Horse Racing Board should use the down time to make truly meaningful changes."
The Los Angeles District Attorney's Office also is looking into the deaths.
The Jockey Club, the 125-year old organization that oversees the breeding registry of thoroughbreds in the US and Canada, supports the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019. The proposed bill would create a private, independent anti-doping authority for the sport with uniform anti-doping and medication rules nationwide. Currently, 38 states have legal horse racing with rules that differ among jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, track owner The Stronach Group has begun putting in place drug and safety protocols for horses, including a reduction in the amount of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix allowed on race days, and restrictions on anti-inflammatory medications. Lasix is a diuretic given to a majority of horses on race days to prevent pulmonary bleeding. Outside North America, most racing countries ban race-day medication.
When the changes are fully in place at Santa Anita and Northern California's Golden Gate Fields, also owned by TSG, they will be among the strictest in the country. Starting next year, all 2-year-old horses will run without medication on race day at the two tracks.
"We'll see if we can keep the horses healthy and safe," said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group.
The California Horse Racing Board voted recently to limit the use of whips in races, but it could be months before that rule is approved.
The turmoil has been most strongly felt in California, with hundreds of workers idled while Santa Anita was dark.
"These horses, they're not our livelihood, they are our way of life," said Baffert, who for years has been based at Santa Anita.
The Stronach Group's Ritvo and the rest of the industry will be watching closely Saturday, collectively holding their breath that all horses and jockeys compete safely.
"We've been under this dark cloud," Baffert said, "so hopefully we can move forward."