ARCADIA (CNS) - Santa Anita officials are targeting March 22 as the date to resume racing at the famed track, while some animal-rights activists today said changes being instituted in the wake of a rash of horse deaths don't go far enough to protect the animals.
The main track at Santa Anita Park was open for limited training Monday morning, but it remains closed for racing indefinitely as officials work on implementing a series of safety protocols announced in the aftermath of 21 horse deaths at the facility since Dec. 26.
Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for Santa Anita owner The Stronach Group, confirmed the hoped-for March 22 re-opening date to the Daily Racing Forum over the weekend.
``If the track performs as well as we think it's going to perform, and we don't have any incidents, (March 22) is the day we hope to get back to what we're calling the new normal,''' Ritvo said.
But Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is asking the industry to do more.
``Santa Anita's new procedures acknowledge that the deaths of 21 horses were never just about the rain and a bad track. They're a step in the right direction -- but they don't go far enough,'' Guillermo said.
``Reviews of horses' past races and workout times, along with more physical examinations, should help to reveal when animals are being medicated to mask injuries,'' Guillermo continued. ``PETA has long advocated for mandating that veterinary records stay with horses throughout their lives, which is crucial for ensuring that injuries aren't hidden. But now, the entire racing industry must own up to the bloodbath on racetracks across the country. Medications must be banned entirely in the week before a race, beating horses with a whip to push them ever harder must stop, and racing injured horses just to give bettors options to put money on must be prohibited. These animals aren't machines to be driven mercilessly, and the public has joined PETA in making it clear that it won't support this abuse.''
Santa Anita officials responded to PETA's concerns with the following statement:
``Regrettably, injuries occur in every sport, and horse racing, where hundreds of races take place every day around the world, is not immune. Santa Anita has taken industry-leading safety measures to prevent injuries and ensure our equine athletes are provided a safe and healthy environment in which to compete.
``At The Stronach Group, we love horses and we are in this sport because we love horses. We are and will continue to take steps necessary to ensure the health and well-being of all of our athletes, equine and human.
To put the 21 recent deaths in context, between December and February of the previous year, 10 horses died at Santa Anita, compared with eight in 2016-17 and 14 in 2015-16.
The track averaged about 50 deaths per year from 2008-18, according to data from the California Horse Racing Board.
The unusually large amount of rain that has fallen over the Southland this winter has been mentioned as a possible factor in explaining the surge in deaths.
The new protocols, which the owners of the famed racetrack announced Friday, are as follows:
-- The creation of an equine-welfare position.
-- Trainers who want to put a horse through timed, high-speed training exercises will be required to ask for permission 24 hours in advance. Officials said the move will help track veterinarians identify ``at-risk'' horses by evaluating past performance, workout data and physical inspections.
-- The track has hired additional veterinarians ``to observe all horses entering and exiting the tracks each morning during training hours.''
-- The track is also instituting a ``House Rule'' requiring ``complete transparency with regard to veterinary records,'' requiring that the records follow the horse through changes in trainers or owners.
-- Santa Anita also created the position of Director of Equine Welfare, which will be filled by an accredited veterinarian. The position will oversee ``all aspects of equine well-being and will lead a Rapid Response team for injuries.'' That team will investigate all factors contributing to the injury and share its findings with the public, track officials said.
Former track superintendent Dennis Moore and Mick Peterson of Racing Services Testing Lab have been brought in to conduct a thorough analysis of the main track that officially began Thursday. But Moore and Peterson said their review of the infield training track determined it was ready for light work by horses, and the infield training track was reopened for jogging and gentle gallops Friday. None of the horse deaths at the facility involved injuries sustained on the training track.
On Monday, Santa Anita's six-furlong inner training track was also reopened for timed workouts, and 133 horses received official clockings for breezes at distances from two furlongs to six furlongs.
``Everything went well this morning,'' Moore said. ``The main track is good. All of the test data support what we experienced this morning and that is, it's where it should be.''
Moore added that if all continues to go well with limited training, a return to timed breezes could come in the next day or two.
In the meantime, the following four races were canceled:
-- the China Doll Stakes, originally scheduled for March 9;
-- the San Felipe Stakes, originally scheduled for March 9;
-- the Santa Ysabel Stakes, originally scheduled for March 10;
-- the Californian Stakes, originally scheduled for April 20.
Other races have been rescheduled, including:
-- the Grade 1 Beholder Mile and Grade 2 San Carlos, scheduled for March 23;
-- the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, scheduled for April 6;
-- the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, scheduled for March 22;
-- the Grade 3 San Simeon Stakes, scheduled for March 22.
-- the Irish O'Brien, scheduled for March 31.