ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) — Racing returned to Santa Anita on Friday for the first time since the track was closed nearly a month ago following the deaths of 22 horses.
Discrete Stevie B, the 8-5 favourite, won the first race on the main dirt track in front of a small crowd that was typical of weekday attendance. Outside the track, about 20 protesters toted signs critical of the sport.
The first six races on the eight-race card went off without incident under sunny skies, a slight breeze and temperatures in the mid-70s. The resumption of racing was being closely watched by the industry and the general public concerned about the safety of the horses.
"I'm just glad we got racing," Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert told The Associated Press. "This is the most beautiful track in America."
Santa Anita had been without racing since March 3, leaving a variety of track employees idled without pay. The dirt surface was inspected and renovated during the shutdown that followed the high number of horse deaths since Dec. 26.
Santa Anita was hit by nearly a foot of rain during an unusually cold and wet winter.
"I think that was the major problem," said Baffert, who didn't have any horses injured or die during the recent incidents.
Baffert had one starter on Friday. Rafal finished third as the 2-5 wagering favorite in the fifth race.
The decision to resume racing came after discussions between track owner The Stronach Group, the California Horse Racing Board and the Thoroughbred Owners of California led to several rules changes at Santa Anita.
The biggest change in place Friday was an immediate reduction in the allowable dosage of the anti-bleeding medication known as Lasix on race days. The approved dosage of the drug that can help a horse's breathing dropped to 5 cc instead of 10 cc on race days.
"Five cc's is plenty for a horse," Baffert said.
Next year in California, all 2-year-olds will be banned from race-day medication.
A proposed rule limiting the use of a whip during races still requires approval by the racing board as well as a legal review by the state government, which is expected to take months.
Track announcer Frank Mirahmadi informed spectators before each race that the whip rule discussed at Thursday's racing board meeting was not in effect.
Only time will tell whether the changes curtail the string of horse fatalities.
Baffert suggested a closer examination of the sport needs to begin in the breeding shed, where millions of dollars are often involved.
"The trainers and owners are the only ones accountable. We're being regulated like crazy," Baffert told AP. "These horses are changing a lot of hands by the time we get to them. They need to look at that. The whole industry has to look at ourselves from within."