Column: Horse racing needs to clean up its act _ or go away

It was supposed to be one of the most thrilling days of the year at Santa Anita.

Two big races at the historic Southern California track, including one of the top preps for the Kentucky Derby.

Bob Baffert in the house, sending out a pair of undefeated 3-year-olds.

But the place will be empty on Saturday.

After the deaths of nearly two dozen horses in less than three months, Santa Anita has called a halt to racing while officials try to get a handle on this alarming epidemic.

While that’s a commendable move by one of the nation’s premier tracks — and a huge financial hit, to be sure — it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The entire sport of kings needs to get its house in order to ensure its long-term survival.

Frankly, it’s getting harder and harder to dispute those animal-rights activists who would like nothing better than to shut down horse racing for good.

“Unfortunately, after practicing for 35 years with sport horses, including racehorses, I’m not a bit surprised,” said Dr. Sheila Lyons, who has worked with Olympic equestrian teams and created the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. “We have a perfect storm.”

The tragic deaths at Santa Anita couldn’t have come at a worse time for horse racing, which has made a bit of a comeback after years of being written off as a fading, out-of-touch sport.

Must of the credit goes to a pair of Triple Crown winners: American Pharoah swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes in 2015, ending a 37-year drought, and Justify followed suit last spring. Television ratings have been relatively strong for the major events, proving the sport still has a grip on a large chunk of the viewing audience despite persistent protests from those who find it cruel and inhumane.

Now, just when everyone should be gearing up for the major prep races that lead to the biggest event of the year, the Kentucky Derby, the rash of deaths at Santa Anita — 21 since the season opened the day after Christmas — has cast a dark cloud over the sport.

“Obviously, one horse is too many,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the organization that owns Santa Anita. “We need to definitely take a step back and evaluate everything.”

But this isn’t a problem confined to one track.

Activist Patrick Battuello says that thousands of racing horses die every year in the United States — so much for that “one horse is too many” refrain — and the sport has undoubtedly dragged its feet for far too long to institute common-sense changes that would greatly improve the health and safety of its 1,200-pound athletes.

Battuello documents the annual death toll on his web site , which lists 817 horses as killed while racing or training in 2018, plus another 100 that died on track grounds from what were described as non-racing ailments. But he says that’s merely the tip of a very deadly iceberg, failing to encompass states that deny his requests for information or don’t require the reporting of deaths during training. It also misses those that die at private training facilities.

“I can state with full confidence that well over 2,000 horses are killed while racing or training on U.S. tracks every year,” Battuello said Friday.

He wonders why horse racing still exists when Ringling Bros. circus has gone out of business, Sea World is in decline, and greyhound racing has been voted out in Florida, essentially eliminating that sport in the U.S.

“What makes horse racing exempt?” Battuello asked. “This is not a sport at all. It’s a gambling game. But with the ability to gamble on various other things now, with full-service casinos and lotteries and sport betting, there’s no excuse for this to still be a thing in 21st-century America.”

Especially the way it’s being run.

This is a sport that continues to be regulated by a hodge-podge of state-run organizations, with no real oversight at the national level. This is a sport that continues to grapple with the unnecessary drugging of horses, often to mask injuries that should’ve been given more time to heal. This is a sport that has far too many owners who are more concerned about making a quick buck than protecting their animals.

“You now have a sport that is predominantly made up of cheap racing, where the investors more often than not are expecting those horses to produce income for them,” Lyons said. “This is no longer the sport of kings, so to speak, where one rich person tries to breed a better horse than another rich person.”

Lyons maintains that the vast majority of catastrophic racing injuries are preventable, the result of repeated smaller injuries that go undetected or are simply ignored in hopes of getting a horse on the track as much as possible.

“These are orthopedic failures, not single-step failures. The horse didn’t step in a hole. The horse didn’t take a bad step,” she said. “If you bend a paper clip back and forth 200 times, then put it back in shape so it looks brand new and hand to me, the next time I bend it, it might come apart in two pieces even though I insist I did not bend it hard. That’s how these fractures occur.”

It starts with a microfracture. Then a small, partial fracture. Finally, in the heat of a big race or perhaps just a light training session, the bone shatters.

It seems sudden, a fluke.

Most likely, it’s not.

“This is really just the normal physiological consequence of an increasing workload,” Lyons said. “Take a human runner. Most runners know that when they increase their distances and then say, ‘Boy, my shins were killing me last night after a run,’ that they need to back off for the next week. They need to let it heal. What they do with horses is give them anti-inflammatories without a diagnosis, then keep training and racing.”

Lyons said new technology is being developed that would allow a CT scan to be performed in a matter of minutes on a horse’s front and rear legs, which could be a revolutionary step forward in equine medical care. But the industry must be willing to pay for the machines, which are expected to cost about $300,000 apiece. Also, there must be enforcement in place to ensure that when a potential problem is discovered, the horse is kept off the track until fully healed.

In the meantime, Santa Anita is focusing on the condition of its track after an unusually cold, wet winter.

That’s all well and good, but it misses the bigger issue.

Horse racing needs far greater changes, needs to show it really cares about the health of its equine athletes.

Otherwise, maybe Battuello and other animal-rights activists are right.

Maybe the entire sport needs to be shut down.

“I’ve had the honor of working with some of the best racehorses that ever lived. This is my childhood dream come true,” Lyons said. “But I agree there are two choices. Either fix it — or it’s no more.”


Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at or at His work can be found at