ARCADIA, Calif. (Reuters) - The Santa Anita Park’s top veterinarian said drug reforms instituted at the race track have made it the safest in the country even though 36 horse fatalities have occurred at the venue this year.
The high number of deaths at the famed Southern California track, which will host the Breeders’ Cup on Friday and Saturday, since the season began in last December, prompted public backlash and government investigations.
Racing at the track was canceled for more than three weeks in March and the track’s owners responded by banning the use of drugs that can mask existing injuries in horses on race days, which can lead to breakdowns.
There was also talk of moving the Breeders’ Cup to another venue but Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for track owners The Stronach Group, said there was no safer place to hold it.
“If you are looking at the United States, there are no stricter set of medication regulations than we have here,” Benson told Reuters at the track on Wednesday.
“These horses and this track are probably examined more than any in the country so I am comfortable that we have done quite a bit and that the horses are safer here,” she said.
Benson, who took the position in May, said the track will have a record number of vets on hand for the Breeders’ Cup and that all of the race horses will undergo vigorous evaluations before they are given the green light to compete.
Due to investigations by the Los Angeles County district attorney and the California Horse Racing Board, necropsy reports for the fallen horses have not been released to the public, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact causes.
Benson said Santa Anita introduced changes which are already producing results.
“A lot of what we’ve done has been based on what we think will help. Things like changing the medication and taking more control over training,” she said.
“We didn’t have the luxury of waiting to figure out if there was a single thing we could do that will improve it. We had to start making improvements and we have definitely improved.”
Since the new rules were implemented in March, fatality rates in racing at the track are down over 50% and more than 70% in training, she said.
Despite the progress, two horses, a mare named G Q Covergirl and a filly named Bye Bye Beautiful, perished at the track on Friday and Sunday, respectively.
“As a general rule we are down overall but that doesn’t mean that those two horses didn’t matter,” she said.
“They certainly mattered to us. I know our vets lost sleep over them.
“That’s one of the parts of the job. You wonder if there is something you could have done better or could have done differently.
“If you take any snapshot in time you can make something look bad, we have to see what happens over the long run and over the long run in these six months, we’ve seen a difference.”
Editing by Pritha Sarkar