OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) - California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is calling on the California Horse Racing Board to suspend all racing at Santa Anita Park in Southern California until an investigation into the deaths of 23 horses in less than four months is complete.
In a letter to horse racing board Chairman Chuck Winner last week, Feinstein said she believes racing should be halted at Santa Anita until the cause or causes of these deaths can be fully investigated. The senator also requested more information about what, exactly, the board is doing to both investigate and address concerns that the deaths have raised.
“The death of a single horse is a tragedy, but as a lifelong lover of horses, I’m appalled that almost two dozen horses have died in just four months,” Feinstein wrote in her letter.
Feinstein pointed out in her letter to Winner that there is currently legislation pending in Congress (The Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2019) that would attempt to address some of the animal welfare concerns with horseracing.
“I would appreciate your views on this legislation and whether additional provisions should be added to strengthen it,’’ Feinstein wrote. “I would also ask that you provide updates as to the investigation and recommended actions stemming from the investigation into the Santa Anita Park racetrack deaths.”
For their part, horse racing board spokesman Mike Marten released a statement to KTVU Monday.
“Horse racing board Chairman Chuck Winner and Executive Director Rick Baedeker have been in continual communications with the senator’s staff and will continue to be in communication with the staff,’’ said Marten.
Southern California Rep. Judy Chu has also recently requested a congressional inquiry into the horse deaths and is aligned with Feinstein that for now, racing should not continue at Santa Anita.
“We want to have a thorough investigation of what went on, and we want to look at the issue of drugs that are being used on (racing day) as well as at other times,” Chu said in an interview with Fox 11 News in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is also investigating the 23 horse deaths at Santa Anita. At this time last year, there had been 10 horse deaths.
The last horse to be euthanized after an injury was Arms Runner, who injured his right foot during a race in late March. The track had just reopened two days earlier after it was shut down in early March because of the deaths.
Prior to the death of Arms Runner, a horse named Princess Lili B broke both her legs during a workout on the track. Fox 11 was at the track reporting a story on track safety when Princess Lili B was injured and later put to sleep.
“She must have taken a bad step," horse trainer David Bernstein told the television station. “My rider said (the horse) felt perfect warming up and working and then all of a sudden…bingo.”
Rick Baedeker, the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, also reacted after the death of Princess Lili B.
“This is a nightmare for everyone connected with racing, whether you are an owner or a trainer, a jockey or a racing fan. Or in this case a regulator,’’ he said. “It’s a nightmare and we just can’t seem to wake up. So it’s just awful.”
Investigators say all the winter rain may have been a factor in the horse deaths.
When asked how the deaths could impact the future of horseracing, Baedeker said: “I think it’s at risk.”
But the horse racing board is taking steps to avoid a further spike in horse injuries and deaths at Santa Anita.The board met on March 28 and voted on several measures to improve the health and safety of race horses.
The board voted unanimously to ban the use of the riding whip unless the safety of the rider or the horse is in danger. A jockey could be finedor suspended or even lose out on race prizes if he or she violates the ban.
The board took other steps in the wake of the horse deaths, including banning certain medications prior to and on race day, calling for transparency of veterinary records and contracting with outside experts to review track surfaces.
The board is also looking to possibly streamline the process for transferring races to another track if
the originally licensed track becomes unsuitable for racing. Both the owners/operators of the original track and the newly designated track must be agreement. The board will discuss this measure further on Friday.