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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Death Under the Palm Trees: Breakdowns at Santa Anita

The Los Angeles Times and Paulick Report blog startled me this morning with updates on the number of horses euthanized at California's Santa Anita racetrack since it opened the day after Christmas.

In less than three weeks, seven horses have been euthanized. No word on how many others have been injured.

People are accustomed to the shock and horror of horses breaking down during races, but the reality is that more horses break down during early morning training sessions, as was the case on Sunday when two horses had to be euthanized.

No mention of the deaths is made in the news section or horsemen's notes on Santa Anita's web site.

The beautiful racetrack outside Los Angleles switched from a dirt surface to synthetic last year and experienced maintenance nightmares that caused the entire surface to be replaced with an Australian surface called Pro-Ride. The 2008 Breeders Cup was run on the Pro-Ride strip when it had been tested for only a month during the track's Oak Tree meet but the championship races went off without any fatalities. The major California tracks have all switched to artificial racing surfaces.

Santa Anita re-opened for its traditional winter meet over Christmas.

California led the nation in legislating lower toe grabs for race horses, along with the switch to synthetic surfaces that normally don't require traction devices anyway. Both moves were part of a concerted effort to reduce breakdowns and improve the safety of racehorses.

Oddly enough, the documentary/reality television show Jockeys was filmed at Santa Anita during the first weeks of the Oak Tree meet. It tracks the working and private lives of seven Santa Anita jockeys as they work toward the Breeders Cup. Presumably, the show, which premieres February 6 on Animal Planet, will give some interesting insights into the surface and the safety issues that were on the minds of jockeys and exercise riders as they rode over an untested surface.

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Patty said...

"The role of conformation in musculoskeletal problems in the racing Thoroughbred"

Equine Veterinary Journal
Volume 36, Number 7
November 2004
Pages 571-575

Read this today and found it interesting in relation to the current post.

Karen said...

I find that to be so heartbreakingly sad! Seven horses out of how many hours of riding/training - is there any way to calculate that?

Amateurcapper said...

So Fran,
Are you implying that the surface is to blame?

Fran Jurga said...

Sorry, Amateurcapper, if I wrote something that sounded like I had any clue to what caused those horses to die. I do feel that the surface is still a question mark in the equation of racing safety. But so are the shoes. And no one has the answer.

coeurdefer said...


I think someone does have the answer; the horses.

The situation at SA is troubling, but I wonder.

Are the trainers and staffs not reading the legs right? I do not pretend to know how to read a horse's legs, but then again I'm not a trainer.

Are the fractures so minute (particularly stress fractures) that they are being missed? I don't know the solution, but I am left wondering if the people calling themselves trainers are really capable of picking up the slightest trouble without costly x-rays. I agree with the shoe approach too. Hope that data is being collected (e.g. type of shoe, farrier, etc).

Bad steps are one thing, damage so severe that a horse has to be euthanized is another. I don't know the answer, but I know where to start...look at the horses, inside and out and every which way. I'd love to see the conditioning regime used on these horses too.

Is this information being collected for cummulative review and part of the newly instituted injury database? I hope so, especially if we are looking for answers.

Bill said...

Hello everyone-

Coeurdefer has it exactly right: the horses themselves hold all of the answers.

I am an exercise physiologist in Louisville and I collect and analyze heart rate and gallop speed data on horses in training.

Consider a filly breezing a half mile with a 'rolling' start in :50 who shows an unacceptable heart rate recovery profile. What happens a week later when she races from a gated start through the first half mile in :45 and still has a quarter or more to travel? This filly is compromised and at higher risk of injury.

Some horses can run on concrete and be OK, some will get hurt running on cotton candy - it's all in the individual.

To my knowledge I am the only one collecting such info - I have tried to present my findings to the KY Horse Racing Commission, the US Eventing Foundation, and to the Grayson Jockey Club - all leading to dead ends.

However a limited number of trainers are listening to me, and we are having amazing results on the track.

dave murray said...

Woodbine in Toronto has had poly track for 3 years now and there breakdown numbers are way up (though they would never admit it) you don't want toe grabs on poly front or hind. there is so much wax in it that it just grabs the foot when it hits the surface. a horses foot must be allowed to slide a little when it contacts the surface where the poly just stops it dead . if you put the poly surface on a baseball diamond the runner would be unable to slide into second base he would just hit the ground and stay where he hit. this is what happens with the horses running on it ,only they are moving at a much higher speed. when that foot lands on the surface it stops dead and sends the shock right through the skeliton of the horse.

Dave Murray Farrier.

Anonymous said...


We have been racing on the poly track in the UK for several years now, I would guess from my obsevations as a track farrier, that the injury rate is no higher and probably quite a lot lower than racing on the grass, pile ups do happen!! The huge differance being very few horses race at full pace from the starting stalls here.

We watch US racing daily, it seems your horses/jockeys tend to jump and run from the gate, muscle fatigue and lactic acid kick in must play a huge part in break down injuries in the US, when horses are asked to travel at full speed pillar to post!!

I am at the track tomorrow and will check if any statistical data regarding injuries on the poly track have been published.

In the UK however horse are only travel daily to race.


Anonymous said...


As I understand it the incidents of fracture in 2006 and 07 were very low 1 or 2 fractures a year. From between 60/80 meets.

This year I seem to think it is some what higher, but we did have one very serious pile up involving several horses.

No formal statistics seeminglye are available how ever. I will keep seaking.

Anonymous said...


Third hand [yet reliable to me] statistics demonstrate, that in the UK that our All Weather race surfaces [1x Fibre Sand, 3x Polytrack turn in a injury rate of 00.6%, of the total runners that require some immediate post race veterinary treatment, compared with00.4 for grass surfaces.

Hope that helps.