“I believe today’s horse is more precocious, more brilliant at 2-years-old and 3 than they used to be, but they’re also more fragile…”
Santa Anita is inching toward its projected March 29 opening after having closed for live racing on March 5 following a dramatic increase in the number of horse fatalities. Since Dec. 26, 22 horses have died either in racing or training. What happened at Santa Anita has been a mystery that remains unsolved. When the track reopens, the stakes are very high and all eyes will be on horse safety.
The Los Angeles Times gathered a roundtable of three well-known experts with more than a century of knowledge working in the horse racing industry to try and dig down into what went wrong at Santa Anita and where things go from here.
On the panel are Alan Balch, a former Santa Anita executive who has also worked with other horse breeds, and is executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers; Joe Harper, president and chief executive officer at Del Mar, who has been running the track since 1978; and Ryan Carpenter, one of the top equine surgeons in the country and who works on the backstretch of Santa Anita.
Answers were edited for clarity and brevity.
Is this the biggest crisis in California racing history?
Harper: I would say yes. I know Del Mar has ended up on the nightly news a couple of times with a similar problem. But this one seemed to get a lot of attention. Maybe the situations were a little different but I do think this is at the top of the list.
Balch: I have to agree. The things that I can remember like this were when Santa Anita was shut down by the labor unions. We have had some integrity things from time to time, like when we wouldn’t let the favorite for the Santa Anita Derby run because of cloudy ownership. But this, because it involves the horses, and people are questioning us about our care of the horses makes it far and away the most serious thing I can remember.
Are horses any different than those of the past that might contribute to more breakdowns?
Balch: I believe today’s horse is more precocious, more brilliant at 2-years-old and 3 than they used to be, but they’re also more fragile. Even saying that, it can’t explain the spike we’ve had here in injuries the last couple months.
The media has in general put a lot of emphasis on the 3-year-olds. Some horsemen have too. … But, Santa Anita used to have a whole series of races for 4-year-olds the following year. So, the auction market then was much more based on horses that would stay sound and race into their maturity. Now there is a collision of market economics, the breeders’ market and the sales market. What people want is a horse that’s going to be brilliant at 2, and win the Triple Crown.
Carpenter: The horses that I’ve seen in the last decade have been very consistent. We’re very much looking for a horse that performs very well in a 2-year-old in training environment. So early quick speed, those fractions of a second going a couple furlongs, could be the difference in a sellable horse or not. There are some people who think that maybe we need to get away from that pushing to shave off fractions of a second…(CONTINUED)