Another Horse Dies at Santa Anita Park

At Santa Anita Park in Southern California, a 9-year-old gelding named Kochees became the 26th fatality at the racetrack since Dec. 26, and the third in nine days. The fatalities have commanded the public’s attention during a bizarre, contentious Triple Crown season and have threatened to close down the sport in California.

The turn of events has put pressure on the Stronach Group, which owns the track and several others, including Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and the sport at large to put meaningful reforms in place to ensure safety of its equine athletes and the jockeys who ride them.

Dead horses, too many of them, have drawn a bull’s-eye around the sport’s existence.

“Santa Anita and all California tracks must suspend racing until the ongoing investigation by the district attorney is complete and the new rules have been strengthened,” said Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Decreasing the number of broken bones is not enough. PETA and Social Compassion in Legislation are currently working with the Stronach Group and the California Horse Racing Board to enact new regulations and laws to stop all deaths. Nothing short of a zero-fatality rate is acceptable.”

Kochees sustained an injury in the sixth race on Saturday, a $10,000 claimer, one of the racetrack’s lowest level races. He appeared to injure his left leg, according to the Equibase chart caller, and was taken off the track by van. He was euthanized on Sunday.

Kochees was trained and partly owned by Jerry Hollendorfer, a Hall of Famer. After being sold at a 2-year-old auction for $120,000 in 2012, Kochees raced 49 times, winning 11 times and earning more than $245,000 in purses.

Nearly 10 horses a week on average died at American racetracks in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. That fatality rate is two and a half to five times greater than in the rest of the horse racing world.

The sport itself is divided. On one side are horse breeders and owners who back a federal bill to create a uniform national standard for drug testing and medication rules in racehorses that would be overseen by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. On the other are associations representing horse trainers and racetrack owners like Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, that say the reforms are too expensive and intrusive.

In March, after the 22nd fatality at Santa Anita, the Stronach Group announced a ban on the use of medication and whips on racing days. It was applauded by animal rights activists but angered the industry in California and beyond.

The Triple Crown got off to a raucous start after a multimillion-dollar disqualification in the Kentucky Derby had first confused and then angered casual sports fans who tune in to horse racing for the five weeks in the spring that the Triple Crown commands their attention.

On May 17, the day before the Stronach Group hosted the Preakness, the second race of the Triple Crown series, at Pimlico, a 3-year-old filly named Congrats Gal died soon after pulling up and finishing last in the nine-horse field in the Miss Preakness Stakes.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, acknowledged that the stakes were high, especially in California, where it takes just 600,000 signatures in a state of more than 39 million to get a ballot initiative before voters that would decide if the sport should be banned.

“We were really devastated and close to seeing racing go away,” he said recently of the California fatalities.

Follow Joe Drape on Twitter @joedrape

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