Activists call for statewide horse racing ban

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Animal-rights activists called for horse racing to be abolished in California on Monday, one day after a third horse died at Santa Anita Park in nine days.

Several groups held a joint demonstration outside the famed Arcadia venue Monday before the track's scheduled races, calling for either a ballot measure or a piece of legislation that would prohibit the sport statewide.

Santa Anita officials said Monday that they have no plans to suspend racing and insisted that their track is safe, pointing to recent reforms at the track and emphasizing that no horses died there for seven weeks of racing prior to the three recent deaths.

"The track is safe, let's be very clear right up front," Santa Anita Park's Stefan Friedman said Monday. "Until last week, you had seven weeks of racing without a single catastrophic injury. That is an incredible statistic that has been unseen in a very long time.

"The reforms that we're putting into place here are nothing short of historic. We have to see how they work, and they are working, by and large. We're talking about medication reform, we're talking about technological reform, and people who are not following the rules here are not going to be welcome here."

On Sunday, a 9-year-old gelding named Kochees was put down after suffering a leg injury during a race the previous day. Kochees was the 26th horse to die at Santa Anita since the track's racing season opened on Dec. 26. Mike Willman, Santa Anita's director of publicity, said "every effort was made to save the animal."

"I want someone to take charge of this and say, let the voters decide," said Heather Wilson, an organizer with Horseracing Wrongs, a New York-based nonprofit working to eradicate horse racing in the United States.

Wilson said her groups and other activists would like to get an initiative on California's ballot, but doing so "costs millions" -- which can be cost-prohibitive for groups comprised mostly of volunteers -- and she would be just as happy to see one or more state lawmakers take up the issue and push a law through the Legislature.

"We are not just standing out here holding signs yelling at people in the pouring rain, we are also looking at top-down tactics, changing the law," Wilson said Monday. "We're hitting every angle that we can."

Wilson stressed that the groups she works with have no involvement with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is working to reform -- not ban -- horse racing.

"They're doing their own thing," she said.

On Sunday, PETA released the following statement from Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo:

"Santa Anita and all California tracks must suspend racing until the ongoing investigation by the district attorney is complete and the new rules have been strengthened. Decreasing the number of broken bones is not enough. PETA and Social Compassion in Legislation are currently working with The Stronach Group and the California Horse Racing Board to enact new regulations and laws to stop all deaths. Nothing short of a zero-fatality rate is acceptable."

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey last month announced the creation of a task force to investigate the deaths of the horses at the track.

In a letter to the California Horse Racing Board on April 2, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein called for racing to be suspended at the track "until the cause or causes of these deaths can be fully investigated."

The California Horse Racing Board -- the state agency charged with regulating the sport -- said Monday that "there is currently an ongoing investigation into some of the fatalities and it would therefore be inappropriate for the California Horse Racing Board to discuss the current situation.

"The Board regrets the loss of any horse. We are committed to working with the entire California horse racing industry in the protection of horses and riders.

"Information regarding safety initiatives currently in place, including those recently implemented at Santa Anita, is available on the CHRB website."

Santa Anita was closed to racing for most of March while authorities studied the racing surface for possible causes contributing to the increase in deaths, with some observers speculating that this year's unusual level of rainfall was playing a role in the fatalities. Santa Anita's owners brought in national experts to conduct days of testing on the track's soil, but no problems were found.

Races resumed April 4 after the state horse racing board approved a series of safety measures, including limits on certain types of medications administered to horses. In early April, 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.

No further deaths occurred until May 17, when an unraced 3-year-old gelding named Commander Coil suffered a fatal shoulder injury while galloping during training.

"Equine shoulder injuries are rare, especially for a horse that is galloping as opposed to breezing or racing," said a statement from TSG. "A comprehensive evaluation will be completed to understand what might have caused this uncommon injury."

Two days later, Spectacular Music, a 3-year-old gelding, sustained a pelvic injury while running his first career race and was put down.

"The Stronach Group remains committed to operating Santa Anita Park with stringent protocols that prioritize the health and safety of horses and riders first and foremost," TSG said in a statement that day.

Representatives for Santa Anita and The Stronach Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday on PETA's statement, or on calls to abolish the sport.

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