“Twenty-three thoroughbreds have died since Dec. 26 at Santa Anita Park, the California track that’s considered one of the best in the nation…”
Saturday marks the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs — but this year’s race will set off under a cloud of controversy originating at a track some 2,000 miles away.
Twenty-three thoroughbreds have died since Dec. 26 at Santa Anita Park, the California track that’s considered one of the best in the nation.
The disturbing spike is now under investigation by Los Angeles prosecutors, sullying the industry ahead of the whimsical Derby Day — and thrusting concerns over the treatment of the animals back into the spotlight.
“The problem with horse racing is that it’s been sold to us as a sport from the beginning,” horse racing industry critic Patrick Battuello told The Post on Friday. “It’s animal exploitation, it’s animal cruelty and it’s animal killing.”
Battuello, 53, tallies all racing- and training-related horse deaths in the country through his blog, Horseracing Wrongs.
Critics have pointed to a number of potential issues at Santa Anita. The Arcadia track was hit with nearly a foot of rain during an unusually cold winter. Racehorses there were also administered Lasix, a common race-day medication given to prevent bleeding in the animals’ lungs. The drug, however, hasn’t been linked to any horse deaths.
Santa Anita shuttered for nearly a month as track officials made a series of changes, including phasing out the use of medication and whips on race days. Now, only 50 percent of previous levels of Lasix is allowed on race day and by 2020, all 2-year-old horses will have to race medication-free at the track and its sister site, Golden Gate Fields.
There hasn’t been a breakdown at Santa Anita since racing resumed in late March.
The horse-death phenomenon has happened before in New York. Between 2011 and 2012, 21 horses broke down at Aqueduct, spurring a probe that found racing officials ignored the health of horses and overused drugs to keep them competing.
Some have questioned why Santa Anita officials didn’t act more quickly in light of reforms implemented in New York, which now has some of the strictest drug rules in the industry.
“Why they took so long to get on top of it is beyond any of us,” said Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “When you see spates of breakdowns like this, which are very unusual, you know something’s going on and something is impacting it.”
The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, said it “took the bold and necessary steps to begin to modernize and reform our sport for the betterment of horse and rider welfare.’
“This industry-led initiative successfully gained approval on groundbreaking Lasix reforms from California’s regulatory body for horse racing, the California Horse Racing Board,” the statement said. “While steeped in both history and tradition, the sport needs to be modernized in a way that prioritizes the health and safety of horses and athletes first and foremost.”
This year’s Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, includes a field of 19. Early favorite Omaha Beach was scratched earlier this week with an entrapped epiglottis. Haikal was also scratched. Game Winner stands as the morning-line favorite with 5-1 odds.
Post time is 6:50 p.m.