SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a series of fiery exchanges, a regular meeting of the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) erupted into a referendum on the entire horse racing industry Thursday.
“I disagree with exploiting animals for your own gain,” activist Rene Rowland said.
“Do you have a pet? Then you’re exploiting it for your own gain,” said board Chairman Chuck Winner, who strongly denied that the industry mistreats horses.
“I don’t hop on a dog and ride it,” Rowland snapped back.
It was one of many confrontations between activists and board members during a public comment session at Santa Anita Park, the site of 23 horse deaths since December.
The deaths at Santa Anita have prompted changes in the industry and even a formal investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. At Thursday’s meeting, though, a less formal clash of ideologies took center stage.
When several speakers referred to the “slaughter” of horses, commissioner Madeline Auerbach protested.
“You speak about something as if you truly know it, and you might want to educate yourself a little better,” Auerbach said to applause. “Our horses do not go to slaughter … and anyone caught sending horses to slaughter is banned from our sport.”
Though most speakers from the overflow crowd supported an outright ban on horse racing, some called that an unrealistic view that could apply to any sport where risk is involved.
“Then we need to be calling for the end of gymnastics, basketball, football, baseball. All of it,” said Debbie Barkley, who said one of her friends broke his back as a gymnast.
But when Dodgers pitcher “Clayton Kershaw pulled a groin, he wasn’t euthanized on the pitcher’s mound,” Wayne Johnson said. “If you run these horses at high rates of speeds, they’re going to break down.”
The debate took place in a conference room overlooking the world famous Santa Anita Park race track, where thoroughbred racing resumed March 29 after a spate of horse deaths startled the industry, baffled state investigators and caused a public outcry.
A formal investigation by the district attorney and the state-run CHRB continues, with more than 70 subpoenas filed for documents, the board announced Thursday. The deaths happened during an exceptionally rainy period in Southern California, but track conditions haven’t officially been linked to the deaths.
Among changes made since Santa Anita reopened: phasing out the use of race-day drugs in horses, commonly known as Lasix; limiting steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs; and requiring trainers to apply 48 hours in advance to work out a horse.
Since racing resumed at Santa Anita on March 29, one horse has died. Twenty-two died between December 26 and March 5, when the park was shut down.
Since Santa Anita and other California race tracks adopted changes in the use of Lasix, commonly used to prevent bleeding, the national horse racing industry has followed suit.
A coalition of tracks and industry associations has agreed to begin phasing out the use of Lasix next year, with stakes races—including all Triple Crown venues and the Breeders’ Cup—ending Lasix use by 2021.
“This is a significant and important first step,” Winner said. “I believe it’s the first time in maybe more than 20 years… that owners, breeders, racetracks across the country have joined together to move forward.”
In California, lawmakers have proposed new legislation authorizing the California Horse Racing Board to suspend racing if dangerous conditions exist.
“It’s clear that state regulators need the power to act swiftly and decisively when exigent safety concerns arise,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, who co-sponsored the legislation and an oversight hearing scheduled for next month to explore additional safety measures.
In California alone, 138 horses died last year while racing or training at race tracks, according to data kept by the CHRB, which records yearly deaths from July through June of the following year. (Five thousand horses are currently in the California racing system, the CHRB said.)
A CNN review of that data over the last decade shows 2,294 horses died at the state’s race tracks, with the deaths associated with racing, training or illness. That figure does not yet include the 23 deaths reported at Santa Anita since December.
Santa Anita—with its high volume of races—experiences dozens of horse deaths every year. A 10-year high of 71 were recorded in 2011-2012, trending down to 44 last year, according to the CHRB data.
Statewide in the last decade, a high of 320 deaths were recorded in 2008-2009, when 15 tracks were in service. That figure has gradually declined along with the number of tracks, now listed at 12.
In 2011-2012, 278 horses died, with the number dropping to around 200 or below in each of the years after.
It’s a 43% drop in deaths that Winner, the CHRB chair, noted in his most recent report to the industry.
“Admittedly, even one death of a racehorse is too many,” Winner wrote. “But it is a sign of progress that the industry is finding solutions to a problem that for far too long has perplexed all of us who care deeply about the safety and welfare of horses.”
Winner wrote those words just a few months before the new round of deaths at Santa Anita.
He told CNN Thursday that complicating the debate surrounding horse racing are the 17,000 licensed jobs tied to the industry in California.
“It’s not like a government shutdown where they’ll come back to work,” he said. “Anyone should spend time here and talk to the people who work so hard and love these animals so much in spite of what others might see.”
But jobs weren’t on the minds of many of those who came to chastise the board.
“I would urge Santa Anita Park to transition into a casino to fulfill the needs of gamblers,” said Andrew Lesser, a physician from Redondo Beach.
“That would be illegal,” Winner noted, as the debate carried on.