At the time of filing this story, Santa Anita management hadn’t made a decision about re-opening the track for training Thursday morning. Racetrack surface expert, Mick Peterson, who had flown Wednesday morning from Kentucky to Los Angeles, was still performing his own evaluation of the dirt surface.
The track was originally scheduled to re-open Wednesday morning, but track management decided to keep it closed another morning in order to perform further “soil analysis,” and to allow Peterson, director of the University of Kentucky’s Ag Equine Program, time to test the surface consistency using a ground penetrating radar.
This maintenance is being conducted to help determine a possible cause for the 19 horses who have been fatally injured at Santa Anita since Dec. 26–six on the dirt during racing, five on the turf during racing and another eight during morning training. The overall total is higher than in comparable periods over the last three years.
Santa Anita’s dirt track–which consists of a hard base, the pad and the cushion–has been closed for training since 9 a.m. Monday morning. Since then, track superintendent Andy LaRocco and his crew reportedly peeled back about five inches of the track’s pad and cushion to examine the base.
Peterson told the TDN Tuesday that the work LaRocco and his crew conducted the past few days falls into two main categories. The first was to conduct a visual inspection of the surface and the base. The second, Peterson said, consisted of thoroughly mixing the sand, clay and silt that make up the track surface. Because of the 11 1/2 inches of rain that Santa Anita has recently taken, Peterson said that the finer particles of silt and clay could have washed to the inside of the track, leaving the larger, coarser particles of sand accumulated nearer the outside of the track.
As part of a broader maintenance program at Santa Anita, the surface moisture content is routinely monitored, said Peterson, and samples of the track are taken monthly and sent for analysis at a laboratory in Kentucky. The samples are tested to determine the exact combination of sand, silt and clay. As for how the samples are taken, there are two main protocols. Ordinarily, four samples are taken at the quarter poles. After periods of rain, a much broader set of samples are taken, to better understand the track consistency both near the rail and further out.
The first broader set of samples taken of the Santa Anita track since the rains are currently at the laboratory in Kentucky, where they’re undergoing a particle size analysis, and a bulk density measurement, “to make sure [the cushion will] set up on the pad correctly,” said Peterson. The results are expected back Thursday.
While the greatest attention has been squared on the racetrack’s surfaces, experts stress the multi-factorial nature of the possible causes behind any individual catastrophic injury.
Evidence has shown that 85% to 90% of all musculoskeletal- related fatalities have pre-existing pathology at the site of the injury, while certain other risk-factors, like the age of the horse, whether it raced at two, and the distance of the race, can all have a bearing on race-day fatalities. What’s more, racetrack fatality numbers also include those from sudden cardiac death, the cause of one training fatality at Santa Anita this winter.
In light of the rash of mainstream coverage the fatalities have garnered–including a segment on NBC News–a number of the more prominent trainers were cagey about voicing publicly their thoughts on the issue, but discussed on background Wednesday morning how it has affected their businesses. “I’ve got 10 horses coming in soon,” said one Grade I-winning trainer, who wished to remain anonymous. The trainer displayed a long list of text messages from people, some of them clients, concerned about events at the track. “I’ve [owners] who have invested millions in horses.”
Trainer Leonard Powell sent an e-mail to his owners Tuesday evening in which he wrote, “since the first time they sealed it, I’ve had reservations about the main track and we have been using it only extremely cautiously. I don’t think that the track surface is the only reason for that many injuries, but it is definitely a contributing factor. Santa Anita is sparing no expense at finding the reasons for the streak of horses getting hurt. Please be assured that I will only use the tracks in which I’m 100% confident will not put our horses in harm’s way.”
Powell told the TDN that he wrote the e-mail to his owners to try to dispel and to clarify some of the rumors circulating. “When an owner sends a horse [into training], it’s like sending a kid to camp,” Powell said. “You like to hear first-hand, who you have your child with, that it’s being taken care of.”
Last month, the Powell-trained Like Really Smart fatally broke down on the dirt during a race. Powell has a horse entered on the turf on Friday. Despite the five horses catastrophically injured on the turf these past two months, Powell said he isn’t concerned about the condition of the turf course, he said, because he uses the main course judiciously during morning training.
“A lot of the breakdowns on the turf are because of training too much on the main track of a morning,” he said. “Horses accumulate micro-fractures every time they gallop and work, which can transcend to fatal injuries once they race, whether it’s dirt of turf.”
All the horses fatally injured at Santa Anita this winter underwent, or will undergo, a standard necropsy. CHRB equine medical director told the TDN Monday that about one-third of the necropsies have been completed, and that the necropsy process can take up to 12 weeks to complete, “depending on the circumstances.”
Arthur explained Tuesday that “a few” of the catastrophic injuries were “surprising,” in that the fractures were “atypical.” Though Arthur was unwilling to add any further information on those horses with “surprising” fractures, including specific numbers of horses, he said that “in instances of unusual fracture configurations,” he can request “special necropsy examinations” on a case-by-case basis.
“Most fractures occur in fairly predictable locations in fairly predictable configurations,” he said. “We’re interested, also for research purposes, in specific legions, like we see in sesamoid fractures that we think are predisposing injuries not readily amenable to current diagnostic techniques.”
On Wednesday, Arthur further clarified the CHRB’s fatality review program.
When a necropsy report is completed, a state veterinarian will interview the trainer of the catastrophically injured horse–sometimes with a safety steward present–and ask them a series of questions, to find out if the horse had any prior medical problems, for example, or if any diagnostic procedures had been performed within the last 60-90 days. The veterinarian will also explain the findings of the necropsy with the trainer.
The program is voluntary–there’s no state law mandating trainer participation. A proposed regulation mandating participation in a postmortem examination review program was introduced a number of years ago. The proposal failed to pass into law. Arthur said, however, that most trainers willingly partake in the current voluntary program.
“We are still working through the protocols and trying different protocols to get the type of information we need,” Arthur said of the program. “When you talk to trainers about fatalities, there’s a natural defensiveness. There’s an emotional aspect that we want to try to get around, so we’re trying to make it collegial and educational and informative. We’re not trying to accuse anybody of anything.”
Practicing racetrack veterinarians are also required to routinely submit veterinarian reports to the CHRB, detailing any treatments given to individual horses. The report isn’t designed to keep a comprehensive list of all veterinary procedures performed on a horse, said Arthur. It is a treatment report, not a medical record, he added. Diagnostic procedures like X-rays don’t have to be listed. What’s more, the reports aren’t in an electronic format that can be organized in a quick and easily accessible manner, said Arthur.
“CHRB and private veterinarians have been cooperating with The Jockey Club on an electronic system which would be searchable,” Arthur said. That effort is “ongoing,” he said.
The ad hoc committee has been finalized, and will comprise Peterson, Hall of Fame retired jockey Alex Solis, now a CHRB commissioner, P.J. Campo, executive vice president, Racing Division, for The Stronach Group, California Thoroughbred Trainer president Jim Cassidy, jockey Aaron Gryder, and exercise rider Humberto Gomez, who exercised the Triple-Crown winning Justify. According to Solis, the committee could also include state veterinarian Tim Grande.
Solis said that the committee will hold its first meeting this Thursday, and after that, the committee could convene every Thursday until the end of the meet.