CYPRESS (CNS) - The California Horse Racing Board today put the Los Alamitos Race Course on 10-days probation and demanded a plan to address a cluster of horse fatalities or face a license suspension.
There have been three fatalities at the race course in Cypress over the past 10 days, prompting the board to call an emergency meeting Friday. So far this year, there have been 29 horse deaths -- 19 died while racing or training while the rest succumbed to gastrointestinal and other types of illnesses.
“Three has to be a thorough review” of why the horses died, said Gregory L. Ferraro, chairman of the board. “I think there is a culture there with the veterinarians and trainers pushing the envelope.”
Ferraro said he was “somewhat disappointed” that the staff at the race course only had its general counsel, Drew Couto, address the issue at the board's meeting Friday.
“I would have liked to hear more from management,” Ferraro said.
The chairman said Los Alamitos must come up with a “feasible plan” to address the issues related to the fatalities by a July 20 meeting.
“If they don't come up with a plan in 10 days, we're putting them on notice that we will suspend their license,” Ferraro said.
The board voted 5-1 for the probation and call for a plan. Commissioner Wendy Mitchell was the lone dissenting vote.
Mitchell said she was also “disappointed a little that the Los Alamitos folks just had their attorney speak instead of coming up with a plan to address these increased deaths.”
She said she understands that horse racing fatalities can be “cyclical,” but she also wanted the staff at Los Alamitos to come up with a plan. It's not clear why she voted no, but there was some discussion among the board whether to halt racing at the course immediately or not, but the board agreed to allow races to continue for the time being while on probation.
Commissioner Damascus Castellanos said he did not want to halt racing without having more information about what caused the deaths.
Ferraro said the fatalities at Los Alamitos and Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia “are not acceptable to this board, we all know that, but at the same time, in the interest of fairness, it would be one step too far to close Los Alamitos altogether without giving them a chance to clarify the situation.”
Ferraro emphasized that “This is Los Alamitos' problem to solve... I'd rather bend over backwards and attempt to be fair to Los Alamitos than to be punitive without adequate information.”
Couto told the board that, “This year was on target to being an exceptionally safe year, but there was a cluster” of deaths in recent days.
The board's Dr. Rick Arthur, who is also the equine medical director at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, said there were two fatalities in March and then none for three months before the cluster of fatalities in the past week and a half.
Los Alamitos was on track for the same number of fatalities as the previous fiscal year before the rash of deaths. Arthur said there has been some “questionable horse training and questionable veterinary practice” at the track, but that is not unique to Los Alamitos.
Dr. Rebecca Fitzgerald, who checks all of the horses at the track before and after the races, said she has an assistant, which allows her to focus on the health of the horses, as the assistant handles the secretarial work.
Fitzgerald could not explain what caused the rash of fatalities.
“The horses in the cluster recently were not on any radar or suspicious in any way,” Fitzgerald said. “They were not on a course I was worried about.”
Arthur and the board's executive director Scott Chaney noted that Fitzgerald is unpopular with many trainers because she won't back down from scratching horses she feels are not suitable for racing.
“Dr. Fitzgerald is not really popular with a lot of trainers, so that is a good sign,” Arthur said.
“To say she's not popular among sportsmen is a bit of an understatement,” Chaney said.
But Chaney added that the board “fully supports her endeavors and the job she is doing over there.”
Horse racing opponents have picketed at the track and called for it to be shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some activists called on the board to shut down racing at the track permanently as they believe the sport is cruel.