Santa Anita sees another death as Breeders' Cup looms

Jack BaerYahoo Sports Contributor

Tragedy struck yet again on Saturday at Santa Anita, the racetrack that has become a lightning rod this year for its string of horse deaths.

The victim this time was a horse by the name of Satchel Paige, according to the Los Angeles Times. The favorite of the fifth race of the day, the horse was reportedly euthanized on the track after its jockey pulled him up when something happened to his left front leg. A mandatory necropsy is scheduled at the University of California-Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

The death is the second of Santa Anita’s fall session and the 34th of this year’s session. It also comes less than two weeks before the track hosts the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 1-2. The Breeder’s Cup, one of the biggest events in horse racing, has been hosted by Santa Anita nine times in the past.

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There had previously been talk of moving the event from Santa Anita this year when the death count reached the 30s, but the Cup’s board of directors unanimously voted to keep the event at the track. Possibly because Santa Anita’s shocking spate of horse deaths actually isn’t that shocking at all.

There is nothing special about Santa Anita this year

Thirty-four horse deaths sounds like a lot. The idea that nearly three-dozen majestic animals could die just by running on a track sounds horrifying to the general public, a sign that something must be wrong with that track.

Well, there might be something wrong with Santa Anita. However, it there’s something wrong, it’s been wrong for decades. And pretty much every other racetrack must have the same problem.

According to California Horse Racing Board data compiled by LAist, there were 44 deaths at Santa Anita last year. There were 64 the year before. And a high of 71 in 2011. The track has averaged more than 50 deaths per year in the last decade. If you think that’s a lot, well, it isn’t. And it is, because that many horses dying by unnatural causes at one place in a year really is horrifying. It’s just not a lot in the world of horse racing.

Santa Anita’s rate of 2.04 horse deaths per 1,000 starts in 2018 pales in comparison to arguably the most famous racetrack in the world: the Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs, where 2.7 horses die per 1,000 starts, according to data reported by the Courier Journal. Scarily enough, Churchill Downs was actually the reported alternative to Santa Anita if the Breeders’ Cup was moved.

Santa Anita is actually on track for a below-average number of horse deaths this year compared to its history. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Santa Anita is actually on track for a below-average number of horse deaths this year compared to its history. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

The story of Santa Anita’s mysterious horse deaths gained traction when 21 had died in the span of less than three months. At that point, the track really was on pace for an unusual amount of horse deaths that year. But then the track was eventually closed down for weeks and reopened with new, much-needed rules in place, like the ban of raceday medications and more transparency with veterinary records.

The deaths have continued — to the point that California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that allowed the CHRB to immediately licenses for safety reasons in June — but their rate has dipped, with 12 in the nearly seven months since.

That is probably an acceptable rate to anyone involved in the sport of horse racing, but still a distressing amount to everyone else that has begun paying attention since Santa Anita started picking up negative publicity. That may be the legacy of Santa Anita’s 2019, showing the world just what the sport of horse racing is when it tunes in for more than just the Triple Crown.

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