Santa Anita Becomes First US Racetrack To Ban Medication For Competing Horses

Credit : Santa Anita Park (Facebook)

Tuesday 19 March - 14h13 | Ian Clayton/Lulu Kyriacou

Santa Anita Becomes First US Racetrack To Ban Medication For Competing Horses

“What has happened at Santa Anita over the last few weeks is beyond heartbreaking. It is unacceptable.” 

 - Santa Anita Becomes First US Racetrack To Ban Medication For Competing Horses

That is part of a statement by the owners of the Santa Anita Park race track in southern California – site of equestrian sports at the 1984 Olympic Games – this week as it banned the use of medications in horses training and competing at the track. Santa Anita will also look at potentially banning the use of whips on race days after the recent deaths of 22 horses at the site closed the main dirt track, citing welfare of the horse as their primary concern.

Santa Anita, located near Pasadena, would be the first  racetrack in the United States to implement such measures. Certain medications, such as Lasix (used to prevent pulmonary haemorragh)  are currently permitted under American racing law. The Stronach Group, which own this course and the one at Golden Gate, would also like to increase the limits on legal therapeutic anti-inflammatories, joint injections, shock wave therapy and anabolic steroids.    

Although track officials have not yet determined the cause of the deaths, the use of currently permitted medications is being looked into as a factor. Track conditions due to cold and rainy weather were also part of the investigation because significant rainfall has made maintaining the dirt track difficult but so far nothing has been found to be wrong with the surface, despite state of the art testing. According to a press release,  the track will be resuming racing and training on the main oval on March 29th. Major races that were missed while the dirt track was been closed are being rescheduled. The turf track was never affected by the accidents.

"[It] is time to address the growing concern about use of the riding crop," commented  The Stronach Group in announcing their decisions. "A cushion crop should only be used as a corrective safety measure. While we firmly believe our jockeys have not purposely been mistreating their mounts, it is time to make this change."

"The sport of horse racing is the last great sporting legacy platform to be modernized. If we expect our sport to grow for future generations, we must raise our standards." 

There is likely to be some opposition from professional jockeys and trainers  to banning the use of the whip entirely as it is not merely a tool to make the horse run faster, a common misconception. Whips are also used to keep  the horses running straight, preventing interference with other runners. There are much stricter rules in European racing to determined how often a horse may be hit and where  and with what which may need to introduced, instead of an outright ban. Such a ban might end up being responsible for more accidents than it would prevent. .

The announcement comes less than eight weeks before the Kentucky Derby  and after the introduction of a new bill in the U.S. Congress called the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019, which would "create a private, independent authority, the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority, responsible for developing and administering a nationwide antidoping and medication control program for horse racing."

“We will wait no longer for the industry to come together as one to institute these changes,” the Stronach Group said in its statement. “Nor will we wait for the legislation required to undertake this paradigm shift. We are taking a stand and fully recognize just how disruptive this might be."

Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president for animal rights group PETA, is quoted as saying: "This groundbreaking plan will not bring back the 22 horses who have died recently, but it will prevent the deaths of many more and will set a new standard for racing that means less suffering for thoroughbreds."

​Representatives from the Stronach Group have a meeting with the California Horseracing Board on March 21st where the new initiatives will be top of the agenda.

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