No criminal wrongdoing in racehorse deaths at Santa Anita, prosecutors say

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LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office Thursday made a series of recommendations aimed at improving safety at California race tracks, but concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing connected to the deaths of dozens of horses over the past year at Santa Anita Park.

"After a thorough investigation and review of the evidence, the district attorney's task force did not find evidence of criminal animal cruelty or unlawful conduct relating to the equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park," according to a 17-page report issued by a task force of prosecutors and law enforcement officers appointed by District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

The report also found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing as it relates to medication of horses or the condition of the track. It also found no evidence of injured horses being intentionally or knowingly raced at Santa Anita or that the park had "unduly pressured trainers and jockeys to race when there were concerns about weather or track conditions."

Animal-rights activists have been pressuring Lacey to pursue criminal charges over the deaths of 37 horses at the Arcadia track since last Dec. 26. The report issued Thursday comes one week before the next racing meet begins at Santa Anita.

"It's beyond credible that the district attorney doesn't see that trainers who medicate horses obviously know that they are injured and sore, so they should be criminally culpable if they then force them to race to their deaths," Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a statement responding to the report.

The report noted that the number of horse deaths at Santa Anita has fluctuated wildly in recent years, reaching a high of 71 during the 2011-12 fiscal year, a low of 37 in the 2010-11 fiscal year and a total of 49 in 2018-19.

According to the report, the 2018 national average of racing fatalities was 1.68 deaths per 1,000 racing starts. Santa Anita's rate that year was 2.04 deaths per 1,000 starts. By comparison, the rate at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, was 2.73 deaths per 1,000 starts.

"Horse racing has inherent risks but is a legally sanctioned sport in California," District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement. "Greater precautions are needed to enhance safety and protect both horses and their riders."

While the report stresses that the District Attorney's Office has not jurisdiction over the horse-racing industry, Lacey called on state regulators to develop safety enhancements to reduce horse deaths, including possible enhanced penalties for rules violations, establishment of a tip line for people to report violations or animal cruelty allegations and mandated inspections of racing and training facilities, and reviews of necropsy and veterinary records of horses that have died.

It also made recommendations aimed at identifying pre-existing conditions in horses that could lead to breakdowns, establishing track- maintenance protocols -- including special measures during rain or extreme weather conditions, and creation of "safety codes of conduct" for owners, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians and others who care for horses.

The report noted that officials at Santa Anita have implemented a series of safety-improvement measures that "have reduced the number of fatal racing and training incidents."

"During the 19 days from April 29, 2019, to May 17, 2019, more than 7,000 timed workouts and almost 800 race starts were recorded at Santa Anita Park without a fatality," according to the report. "After closing day on June 23, 2019, through July 11, 2019, horses continued to train on the track. Santa Anita Park recorded nearly 2,500 workouts and hundreds of additional `gallops' with zero fatalities. The industry as a whole should strive to do everything in its power to achieve these model numbers and continue to trend toward improved safety standards."

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park, issued a statement thanking Lacey for her office's work on the probe.

"We are all committed to the same thing -- the highest level of equine safety and welfare -- and we will continue to do everything possible to promote equine and rider health and safety," according to the company. "And we are gratified that the district attorney's report into the conduct and conditions at Santa Anita Park found no evidence of misconduct.

"The Stronach Group looks forward to working further with the California Horse Racing Board, industry partners and other stakeholders to implement recommendations from the task force's report, many of which Santa Anita Park has already started implementing."

Last week, Santa Anita officials unveiled a recently installed Longmile Positron Emission Tomography Scan machine -- billed as the first of its kind -- that scans horses' fetlocks, or ankle joints, to identify possible pre-existing conditions that could prove dangerous to the animal. Park officials said the fetlock is the most common area for injuries to occur in horses.

Belinda Stronach, president of The Stronach Group, said at the unveiling that the firm "is committed to doing what we can to provide horsemen with access to resources that will help them to better assess the health and fitness of horses in their care. We continue to make progress with the installation of the MILE-PET scan machine at Santa Anita. This state-of-the-art technology reflects a new standard of care within thoroughbred racing, a standard that puts the health and safety of horses and riders first."

While blasting the decision not to pursue any criminal charges, Guillermo, the PETA vice president, said she was at least pleased that the report recognizes that more needs to be done to protect horses.

"The racing industry has not done enough to protect horses on race tracks and the industry is dead itself unless it does far more," she said. "Legislation to increase transparency in this secret and deadly industry is essential, and PETA will continue to work to ban drugging, whipping and all abuse in California and every racing state. No sane person can find it acceptable for horses to suffer and die in a sport."

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