Live racing is canceled today and the rest of the weekend at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, and perhaps beyond that. Track management made this difficult decision following the euthanizing of the four year old filly Lets Light The Way after she sustained a foreleg injury during morning workouts on Tuesday, March 5th. This was the 21st fatal injury sustained by a horse in either racing or training since the current meeting began last December 26th. The causes for this spike in fatalities are unknown–an unusually cold and wet winter seems one likely suspect–but until these can be determined and remedied, the track is making the right call in suspending racing and full workouts.
This current crisis of equine fatalities at Santa Anita has thrown horse racing into disarray in Southern California and, given the track’s prominence, will cause profound reverberations across the country’s entire racing industry. You need look no further than the now canceled card of March 9th and the postponement of the Grade II San Felipe Stakes, a traditional prep race on the Triple Crown circuit previously won by such legendary horses as California Chrome, Sunday Silence and Triple Crown winner Affirmed on their way to victory in the Kentucky Derby and beyond. In the era that ended with the shuttering of Hollywood Park, each track was able to pick up each other’s slack in an emergency and would have provided an obvious solution. Los Alamitos Racecourse in Orange County has already been helpful in opening its facilities for horseman to use to continue their stables in training and, depending on how expeditiously Santa Anita is able to resolve its safety issues, may end up hosting some of the race dates, though their inability to conduct turf racing would still result in some continuing disruption in the sport.
Not to suggest that all is lost for the Arcadia oval. The track has brought in Dennis Moore, Santa Anita’s former (and Los Alamitos and Del Mar’s current) track superintendent on as a consultant. Moore brings considerable expertise to the table and offers hope that the ship can be righted; his resume includes rebuilding the racing surface at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico following Hurricane Dolly in 2008 and, more recently, reversing a similar spike in fatalities that plagued the Del Mar meet in 2016 by two-thirds the following summer.
Horse racing is a thrilling and dangerous sport of incredible highs and tragic lows. Thoroughbreds are beautiful and powerful animals that can race over 40 mph at top speed, and balance their 1,000 pound plus frames on legs that are all too fragile. Jockeys, trainers and other track workers take chances with their own lives as well. Cynics will tell you that the humans in the sport don’t care about the welfare of the animals, but while there are no doubt bad actors there as in any other segment of society, it doesn’t take too much time at the race track to see that the majority of men and women who chose the sport as their vocation share a connection with the horses in their charge. I was last at the track on Friday, January 4th, a beautiful day of great racing that was marred by two breakdowns in the final event. The concern and pain jockey Brice Blanc felt pulling up his horse, Unusual Angel, when he took a bad step and staying with him until he was loaded in the van was palpable from the grandstand. May Mr. Moore and his crew work their magic and make The Great Race Place a safe place for racing once again.