ARCADIA (CNS) - One day before the close of a catastrophic racing season at Santa Anita, another horse died there today -- the 30th fatality at the famed racetrack since Dec. 26, and the second death since track officials denied a request from the state regulatory board to suspend racing temporarily.
Mike Marten, a spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, confirmed to City News Service that American Currency -- a 4-year-old gelding -- suffered a fatal leg injury Saturday morning while exercising on the training track at Santa Anita and was euthanized.
American Currency was owned and trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, a horse racing Hall of Famer who was banned from the track later in the day.
Hollendorfer had already lost three horses at Santa Anita this season and two at another park owned by Santa Anita's owner, The Stronach Group. He came in for heavy criticism in a CNN story Friday, which reported that the CHRB is investigating the role of trainers in some of the 30 deaths and has experts examining the remains of the dead horses for clues.
The board was said to be working with L.A. County prosecutors to determine “whether unlawful conduct or conditions affected the welfare and safety of horses.”
Shortly after news of Saturday's death broke, The Stronach Group announced that Hollendorfer was banned from Santa Anita and other company racetracks.
“Individuals who do not embrace the new rules and safety measures that put horse and rider safety above all else, will have no place at any Stronach Group racetrack,” the company's statement said. “We regret that Mr. Hollendorfer's record in recent months at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields has become increasingly challenging and does not match the level of safety and accountability we demand. Effective immediately, Mr. Hollendorfer is no longer welcome to stable, race or train his horses at any of our facilities.”
Hollendorfer told horse-racing journalist Ray Paulick -- who was the first to report Saturday's death -- that American Currency was scratched from a race last week because he got sick.
“You have to wait a certain amount of days before you can work them. We turned in our slip to work him today and when he was starting off he took a bad step,” the trainer said. “I had gone over him thoroughly like we do every horse every day. He jogged on the road and jogged sound. As much as I'm involved, every time we lose a horse, it hurts deeply. The rest of the guys on the racetrack feel that way, too.”
Hollendorfer was said to be exploring his options for moving his horses in California, who number about 100. “I thought the ruling was extreme and I don't really think I've done anything wrong, but I would be willing to step away from racing for a while,” he said. “I don't want to.”
Marten said the CHRB panel reconvened Saturday morning and “recommended that the Board of Stewards at Santa Anita order the scratch (withdrawal) of the four horses trained by Hollendorfer that were entered to run Saturday and Sunday, the final two days of the Santa Anita meet. The stewards so ordered the scratches of the Nightingale (7th race Saturday), Dueling (9th race Saturday), Golden Star Lady (4th race Sunday), and Sneaking Out (6th race Sunday).”
The number of deaths at the track have prompted calls from animal- advocacy groups and some politicians for a halt in racing at Santa Anita, or even to ban the sport in California altogether. One such group said Saturday that the track was using Hollendorfer as a scapegoat for the crisis.
“Because American Currency is the fourth horse trained by Jerry Hollendorfer to die at SA, and coming as it has the morning after CNN ran a decidedly negative piece with the Hall of Famer Hollendorfer as its focus, racing has an easy villain,” said Horseracing Wrongs, a New York-based group that advocates for a nationwide ban on the sport. “... This, of course, is just the latest distraction (rain, Lasix) advanced by an increasingly desperate industry. Horseracing kills horses -- that's all you need to know.”
People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals, however, praised the move.
“Banning the infamous Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer from all Stronach tracks sends a message to every sleazy trainer that if your horses drop like flies, you will drop with them,” a PETA statement said. “Other trainers with multiple violations and the blood of dead horses on their hands should go the same way, pronto. PETA and Social Compassion in Legislation are working with the California Horse Racing Board and California legislators to enact rules and legislation to get to zero fatalities and this means that trainers with multiple violations must not be licensed in this state. Ending all racing cruelty would be the best, but nothing less than these conditions is acceptable.”
According to the CNN report, Hollendorfer has been sanctioned 19 times by the CHRB since 2006, for overmedication or use of illicit medications on horses. He told Paulick that he was “appalled” by the report, which included criticism from Jim Cassidy, president of California Thoroughbred Trainers.
“I never thought people thought of me that way,” Hollendorfer said.
In April, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced the creation of a task force to investigate the deaths of the horses at the track. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, have both called for racing to be suspended at the track until the deaths can be fully investigated.
Racing was halted at the track for most of March while examinations were conducted on the track. Races resumed April 4 after the state horse racing board approved a series of safety measures, and Santa Anita officials announced a series of new measures to help bolster the safety of horses at the track, including restrictions on certain medications, requiring trainers to get permission in advance before putting a horse through a workout and investing in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.
At the direction of Gov. Gavin Newsom, Santa Anita and the CHRB recently created a “safety review team” that evaluates all horses at the track. The five-member panel of veterinarians and stewards has the authority to scratch a horse from a race if even one panelist questions the animal's fitness.
However, since American Currency was not entered in any races this weekend, he was not reviewed by the panel, according to Marten, who said the panel rejected 38 horses entered to run in the final six programs at Santa Anita.
On June 9, responding to the 28th death of the season, the CHRB recommended the facility suspend racing for its final two weekends. Track officials declined, however, and hours later Truffalino, a 3-year-old filly, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack during a race conducted in temperatures that reached the upper 90s.
Under current law, the CHRB does not have the authority to suspend a race meet or remove race dates from a current race meet without the approval of the race track operator or without holding a public meeting with ten days public notice.
“The Chairman, Vice Chairman and the Executive Director recommended to Santa Anita management that they suspend racing for the seven remaining race days but that they allow horses to continue to train during that period. This would provide the industry more time to fully implement announced safety initiatives and perhaps additional ones.
“It is our understanding that Santa Anita management, after consultation with certain other industry stakeholders, believes that for a variety of reasons, the future of California racing is best served by continuing to race.”
The board still had time to halt Santa Anita's final weekend of racing with the required 10 days notice, but opted against it.
Marten added that a panel will be reviewing horses entered to run at the Los Alamitos thoroughbred meet scheduled to run at that Southland track from June 27 through July 14.
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