Horse racing board approves new safety reforms in Del Mar meeting

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DEL MAR, Calif. -- California's horse-racing regulators met in North County Thursday to approve a new series of reforms at the order of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The sport is struggling to emerge from a year of scrutiny that included the death of 37 horses at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. In Del Mar, where four horses have suffered injuries that led to their death in recent weeks, races were canceled for Thanksgiving Day over concerns that weather could make for unsafe conditions.

On Nov. 4, Newsom had asked the California Horse Racing Board to submit recommendations for reform within 30 days. Meeting on Thursday at the Del Mar Hilton, the CHRB outlined the following recommendations:

  •  Make public any positive drug test within 24 hours of confirmation;
  • Direct revenue from CHRB licensing and penalties (approximately $1 million annually) to welfare and safety measures;
  • Make confidential veterinary records open to horse owners, practicing veterinarians, official veterinarians, and to some degree trainers and jockeys;
  • Require any horse placed on the high-priority watch list by the review panel to also be placed on the Veterinarian's List and prohibited from racing and training until removal from that list by the official veterinarian;
  • Establish stricter criteria for removal from the veterinarian's list, possibly to include digital scanning (e.g. MRI and PET-scan, both of which are being installed at Santa Anita);
  • Post weekly fatality reports on the CHRB website, which is currently being arranged;
  • Require the tracks to protect whistleblowers who report suspicious activity (the CHRB currently has a hotline and a website link to receive confidential reports);
  • Prohibit racing and training on tracks that have been modified due to weather conditions (a similar condition will be in place for the upcoming meet at Santa Anita with exact details yet to be determined);
  • Gradually prohibit/eliminate administration of corticosteroids;
  • Continue to research the desirability of synthetic surfaces;
  • Eliminate extracorporeal shock wave therapy (the CHRB is currently moving a regulation that prohibits horses from racing within 30 days of receiving such treatment);
  • Require submission of the most recent 30 days of medical reports for horses entered to race;
  • Explore stronger rule options to require trainers to comply with advice from veterinarians'
  • Continue to increase the use of out-of-competition (OOC) testing, which involves testing horses not yet entered to race, as opposed to the more widespread testing of post-race samples (the CHRB tested more than 2,500 OOC samples in the last fiscal year);
  • Provide ongoing education for trainers and veterinarians on the risks of corticosteroids and certain other medications;
  • Review penalty guidelines.

The CHRB also elected Dr. Gregory Ferraro as its new chairman, replacing former chairman Chuck Winner, whose term expired in September. Ferraro -- a veterinarian -- was director of the Center for Equine Health at UC Davis from 1997-2014.

He said the board has a new mandate from Newsom's office, "and that mandate is, primary number one, health and safety of the horses. Myself and the other commissioners fully intend to carry out that mandate, which means, though we have made several important new regulations and changes, there are many more to come, and the ones that have yet to come are going to be much more difficult."

At its meeting Thursday, the CHRB approved the license for the Los Angeles Turf Club to conduct a race meet at Santa Anita Park from Dec. 26, 2019, through June 21, 2020, on the following conditions:

  •  Run no races in which the horses can be claimed (purchased) for less than $10,000;
  • Submit a detailed plan by December 3 on steps to be taken to protect horses from injury during inclement weather when the racing surface is modified;
  • Prohibit horses from racing within 30 days of being administered corticosteroid injections in the fetlock joint and also prohibit horses from high-speed training within 10 days;
  • Furthermore, Santa Anita cannot offer racing on 12 unspecified days of its allocated racing dates, a further incentive to protect horses from racing during adverse weather conditions.

Santa Anita -- and the sport in general -- has been under heavy scrutiny since a rash of 37 deaths at the Arcadia track since Dec. 26 started garnering more media attention than in seasons past.

Racing at Santa Anita was halted for most of March while examinations were conducted on the track. They resumed April 4 after the state horse-racing board approved a series of safety measures and The Stronach Group -- which owns Santa Anita -- announced a series of steps aimed at bolstering the safety of horses at the track, including restrictions on certain medications, requiring trainers to get advance permission before putting a horse through a workout and investing in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.

The Stronach Group and the California Horse Racing Board also created a "safety review team" that evaluates all horses at the track. The panel of veterinarians and stewards has the authority to scratch a horse from a race if even one panelist questions the animal's fitness.

Other Southern California racetracks had their share of horse deaths too, with eight horses killed since the beginning of the summer at Del Mar Racetrack, and four killed this summer at Los Alamitos Racetrack in Orange County.

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