LOS ANGELES (AP) — California prosecutors found no evidence of animal cruelty or other crimes during an investigation into a spike in horse deaths at Santa Anita Park racetrack over the past year, according to a report issued Thursday.
A task force formed by the Los Angeles district attorney found the 49 deaths at the track during a 12-month period ending in June occurred at a rate higher than the national average, but lower than some years in the past decade and lower than Churchill Downs in Kentucky.
The investigation was one of several actions taken after 23 horse deaths at the California track during the winter-spring season from Dec. 30 to March 31 caused an outcry that included calls to shut down horse racing in the state and led to regulatory changes and proposed legislation.
A total of 56 horses have died at the track since July 2018. The most notable death came in November after Mongolian Groom, a 4-year-old gelding, faltered in the final turn of the $6 million Breeder's Cup Classic in front of nearly 70,000 fans and a prime-time television audience and was later euthanized.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey made two dozen recommendations for improving safety at racetracks and said she would sponsor legislation to make veterinary records more transparent for horses racing in California.
"Horse racing has inherent risks but is a legally sanctioned sport in California," Lacey said in a statement. “Greater precautions are needed to enhance safety and protect both horses and their riders.”
The report found no evidence that owners, trainers or jockeys intentionally made an injured horse race or that the track had pressured jockeys or trainers to race when there were concerns about weather or the track condition. While eight drugs were found in several of the horses that died, none was illegal and quantities didn't exceeded legal limits.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is demanding racing be suspended nationwide until safety measures are introduced, such as installation of CT scan equipment to evaluate the legs of horses, was critical of the report.
“It's beyond credible that the district attorney doesn't see that trainers who medicate horses obviously know that they are injured and sore, so they should be criminally culpable if they then force them to race to their deaths,” Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said. "No sane person can find it acceptable for horses to suffer and die in a sport.”
Political action committee Animal Wellness Action, which is urging Congress to pass legislation to establish a national, uniform standard for drugs in the industry and create an independent organization to oversee medication rules, testing and enforcement, said it was encouraged no criminal wrongdoing was found and applauded Lacey's recommendations.
“But doping remains legal in California, and across the U.S., and American horse racing is addicted to drugs," said executive director Marty Irby. "It’s time for an intervention, and Congress must soon pass the Horseracing Integrity Act to reform the industry or the public sentiment will continue to shift away from merely eliminating doping in horse racing to eliminating horse racing itself.”
The bills is being supported by the Breeders' Cup, The Jockey Club and The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita.
The Stronach Group welcomed Lacey's report and said it was happy she found no evidence of misconduct.
The investigation found an average of 2.04 deaths per 1,000 racing starts last year at Santa Anita, compared to 1.68 nationally, the report said, citing Jockey Club statistics. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, averaged 2.73 deaths.
The number of deaths at the track have fluctuated over the past decade from a low of 37 in the 2010-11 season and a high of 71 the following year, the report said. There were five more deaths last year than in 2017-18.
The national average for catastrophic racing breakdowns has declined almost 20% in the past decade, the report said,
The California Horse Racing Board, which is due next month to issue its own report on the fatalities, voted last week to impose the nation’s strictest limits on the use of riding crops, which are commonly called whips.