The initial equine fatality numbers for Southern California since March 29, when the tracks and racing regulator put sweeping reforms in place, are encouraging.
While more numbers are needed before declaring any statistical significance, to date the rate of catastrophic injury during racing at Del Mar, Los Alamitos Race Course, and Santa Anita Park is below the national average of 2018 (the most recent full season available).
Those trends certainly are notable as Santa Anita Park prepares to launch its winter-spring meeting Dec. 26. That same meet in 2018-19 suffered from a rash of breakdowns that saw Santa Anita close after March 3 to investigate possible causes and determine solutions. Track owner The Stronach Group and the California Horse Racing Board put a long list of new house rules and regulations in place in the areas of medication, shockwave therapy, claiming rules, workout rules, and veterinary scrutiny.
At the time Santa Anita halted its meeting in early March, the rate of catastrophic breakdowns in racing at the track was 4.4 per 1,000 starts (Dec. 26-March 3). That rate was cut in half (2.16 per 1,000 starts) when the track returned to racing March 29 through its fall meet that concluded Nov. 3.
When racing at Del Mar and Los Alamitos is considered, the Southern California equine safety record under the reforms is even more impressive. Since March 29 through Dec. 8, using available public records and applying the standards of The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, the breakdown rate at the three Southern California tracks is 1.48 per 1,000 starts. That rate is 12% lower than the overall rate of 1.68 per 1,000 starts for U.S. racing in 2018 and 66% lower than the rate at Santa Anita from Jan. 1-March 3, 2019.
Another way of presenting those numbers: Since racing returned March 29 at Santa Anita, such incidents have not occurred in 99.85% of starts.
The Equine Injury Database focuses on equine fatalities during racing starts to allow for comparison from track to track and from year to year throughout North America. The California Horse Racing Board tracks such incidents in racing and training within the state.
After the unfortunate start to the year at Santa Anita, the reduced rate of catastrophic injuries since March 29 contributed to the state having its second-safest fiscal year on record, in terms of total equine fatalities for all racehorses (all breeds), according to CHRB equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur. The record low came in 2017-18, and the 2018-19 fiscal year ending June 30 was second-lowest, up just 4.3%.
Arthur said fiscal year 2019-20 is off to a good start. According to CHRB numbers looking at when the fiscal year began July 1 through Dec. 11, fatalities are down 13.4% for all racehorses--Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, Quarter Horses, and other breeds that race and train on California tracks. Those horses are racing and training under the new CHRB standards.
At the Dec. 12 CHRB meeting, Arthur noted the state has seen a 50% reduction in fatalities in the past 10 years. While the reduction in racing for all breeds in the state during that time accounts for some of that reduction, Arthur believes a pro-active regulator also has made a difference.
"Any review of the CHRB's agendas, transcripts, and actions the past 13 years will show horse safety and welfare has been a major focus of the board and certainly of mine," Arthur said. "We did not wait for the investigation to be completed to start taking action. The medication restrictions, we all know about. We've increased staffing, especially more veterinary assignments. We've increased out-of-competition testing. We're monitoring training. We have diagnostic imaging, which when you see the report I think you'll see why it's so important. We do more pre-race examinations and have improved record-keeping."
The first year the CHRB media guide makes starts for all breeds readily available is FY2010. From FY2010 to FY2018 (FY2019 is not yet available), equine fatalities were down 52%. That reduction out-paced the 33% reduction in starts. And, it should be noted, that in FY2010 34% of starts were made on synthetic surfaces, compared with 17% in FY2018.