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Betting on Change: More than 200 racehorse deaths recorded in Arizona over 5-year period

More than 200 racehorses have died since 2017, according to state records.
Published: May. 18, 2022 at 5:15 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Horse racing has been steeped in controversy in recent years, but there is a push to make stricter rules for the sport.

Our National Investigative Team looked into the nation’s trainers - the professionals responsible for managing race horses and the staff they work with.

They are also who take the blame when there is an animal potentially in danger.

within the last five years, horse trainer Karl Brogerg has lost at least 22 horses.

That is the same number of deaths we found tied to another highly decorated hall of fame trainer, Todd Pletcher.

At racetracks across the country, loading the starting gate has essentially marked the end of life for thousands of horses.

We gathered fatality records from across the country and uncovered in the past five years, state racing commissions have tallied more than 4,000 racehorse deaths, most the results of broken legs.

Many of those horses died during or just after a race, others while training.

“Look, horse racing is a dangerous sport, really. I mean but that number is not acceptable,” said Staci Hancock.

Hancock along with her husband Arthur own Stone Farm in Paris, Ky. and have long pushed for horseracing reforms through their nonprofit group Water Hay Oats Alliance.

Hancock knows what it’s like to breed a winner.

Her horses have won two Kentucky Derbys, Gato del Sol in 1982 and Sunday Silence in 1989.

“It’s just this euphoric, unbelievable moment and you know, pinch yourself moment, walk on-air moment,” Hancock said. “And then it’s addictive, so you want to do it again.”

In her decades on the front lines of the sport, Hancock said the true addiction is trainers giving their horses unnecessary drugs.

“Yes, there’s a drug problem in horse racing. Definitely,” Hancock said.

Drugs can mask pain and injuries, which means horses may end up competing when they should be healing.

Hancock says those drugs have likely led to the large number of deaths across the country, including 206 in Arizona since 2017.

The state reported 38 deaths this year: 30 at Turf Paradise, 7 at Rillito, and 1 at Sonoita Fair.

The majority of those deaths, 21, happened while the horses were racing.

Of the 105 trainers involved with equine fatalities in Arizona, 39 lost at least two horses.

One trainer, Juan Pablo Silva, lost seven, which is the most reported in our state.

Since 2017, nearly two dozen trainers nationwide have lost at least 10 horses.

That includes Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, a Nogales native who launched his career at Rillito Park after graduating from the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program.

Baffert trained Medina Spirit, the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner that was later disqualified following post-race testing.

Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, the anti-inflammatory medication is allowed in Kentucky, but it must clear a horse’s system at least 14 days before a race.

Baffert, a six-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, was banned from participating in the race earlier this month.

He is also banned from competing in the Preakness Saturday, May 21 and the Belmont Stakes on June 11.

Baffert denied knowingly cheating and is fighting his suspension in federal court.

Last December, after a training session in California, Medina Spirit collapsed and died.

From 2017 to 2021, the Arizona Racing Commission has sanctioned 423 horseracing licensees for a variety of reasons including race-related riding to drugs used in horses.

Of the 423 sanctions, 85 were for drug violations involving a horse.

Right now, horse racing regulations and enforcement are a mixed bag across states, but the patchwork should change.

A law signed by President Trump in 2020 will make one set of rules for drug testing and penalties.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) takes effect in July and is designed to improve the wellbeing of racehorses with a robust drug-testing program and a focus on equine fatalities at the tracks.

Under the current structure, the regulation of horse racing varies state to state, with officials enacting their own rules and penalties for violations.

The new law will make one set of rules for drug testing and penalties that applies in all states. It also will oversee racetrack safety in an attempt to prevent equine fatalities. Races themselves still will be regulated by the states.

The law takes effect in July and will regulate thoroughbreds, which run in the triple crown races: The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. But it won’t apply to standardbreds, which run in harness races, which means the regulations will remain with the states.

But while many see this as the industry turning a corner, the law is not without its detractors.

The U.S. Trotting Association fiercely opposes the law, signed by President Donald Trump in December 2020, as a Constitutional overreach. It has said that its sport – harness racing – will not sign onto the federal oversight despite the objections from many of its members.

The law created an opt-in clause, allowing each type of horseracing to decide if their sport would fall under the federal regulations. Thoroughbreds, which run races with a jockey on their backs and participate in the Triple Crown, will be covered.

Hancock has pushed for the new law for years.

She might compare it to the stretch run of a race, the final seconds, the window is closing for the sport to make a move. She worries if it doesn’t rid itself of drugs, horse racing could be finished.

“We want it to continue clean. We want to watch the horses go out on the track and know that each one of those is being treated fairly. They’re not being abused with drugs. And you know, it’ a beautiful sport, it’s a great thing horses want to run. I think we can, you know, bring our sport back to where it was during the days of Seabiscuit, the Man O’ War when it was the number one spectacular sport,” Hancock said.

The Arizona Department of Gaming - Division of Racing said it, “is aware of the recent uptick in horse fatalities and has been working with principal stakeholders in the horse racing industry to address equine safety issues on an ongoing basis.”

The Division said it is addressing equine safety issues on an ongoing basis. This includes conducting pre-race exams for horses entered on race day (except horses scratched for non-veterinary reasons), increasing horse testing, performing necropsies on equine fatalities at Arizona racetracks, and meetings with stakeholders to review findings and explore new methods to improve equine safety.

This is not the first time the Division has acknowledged the number of racehorse fatalities.

Arizona saw an 83 percent increase of equine fatalities between the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 race meets, putting Arizona at more than double the national average.

In response, the state launched the Fatality Breakthrough Project, which offered recommendations to make racing safer for both equine and human athletes.

Not all of these recommendations were taken, however, the Division has taken recent steps to improve safety.

On March 1, the Division implemented a new policy at Turf Paradise that requires the submission of medical records for every horse entered at the track, which allows veterinarians to review such medical records to identify horses potentially at risk for injuries based on their overall health status.

Additionally, the Division has collaborated with track management and Arizona Horsemen to mitigate horse fatalities. For example, one they purchased new tractors, lawnmowers, harrows, and water trucks to properly maintain the track surfaces.

Turf Paradise also completes daily maintenance reports and retains an expert track surface consultant to inspect and recommend track maintenance like adding sand, silt, organics, or water to enhance the surface.

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