Santa Anita Park will reopen for live racing Friday amidst controversy after 22 horses have died in recent months.
The famed Southern California horse racing track has held multiple Breeders’ Cup World Championships, and is slated to hold the event again in November. The Grade II $200,000 San Luis Rey stakes will headline Friday.
On Thursday, the California Horse Racing Board granted approval for Santa Anita to reopen. Horse racing at Santa Anita had been suspended in response to the deaths of 22 horses since Dec. 26. Most recently, on March 14, the filly Princess Lili B broke both front legs while training and was euthanized.
Necropsies are underway to determine the causes of death, but officials say the horses suffered fractures and at least one had a heart attack, according to Los Angeles ABC station KABC.
A statement from Belinda Stronach of The Stronach Group, Santa Anita’s parent company, announced plans to update the facility’s medication polices, implementing a zero tolerance policy for race-day medication, including the controversial drug Lasix.
“These Thoroughbred racetracks will be the first in North America to follow the strict International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) standards,” the statement said, calling the enactment of the updated policy, “a watershed moment.”
The racetrack has been heavily criticized by animal rights activists. Members of PETA rallied on March 14, urging Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey to request an immediate investigation by law enforcement into the horse deaths. After Santa Anita announced its new policy, PETA expressed relief in the company’s ban of race practices such as corticosteroid injections and whipping.
“PETA will be watching very closely to see that these changes are implemented,” PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said in a statement.
Mike Smith, a Hall of Fame American jockey, defended the act of whipping on Wednesday at the draw for the upcoming Dubai World Cup. According to The Guardian, he expressed his belief that a complete ban on the whip will not hold at Santa Anita. Santa Anita will continue to allow whipping only as "a corrective safety measure."
“They [whips] don’t mark or hurt a horse whatsoever, but they help a horse to focus when you need it,” Smith told The Guardian.
“A lot of people will come in for the Breeders’ Cup and then all of a sudden, you’re expecting them to adapt in one day, so it’s not fair to anybody.”
The practice will first go through a 45-day public comment period before enactment.
As it stands, Santa Anita will abide by the new standards and The Stronach Group recognizes that certain horses will not be able to race due to their medication requirements.
“We are taking a step forward and saying, quite emphatically, that the current system is broken,” Belinda Stronach said in a statement.
“First and foremost, we must do right by the horse.”