The number of fatal injuries to horses at Santa Anita this year is an unfolding catastrophe another in the Breeders Cup could conceivably spell the end of racing in California
On 18 October 1973, I had a bet on a horse at a racecourse for the first time. Well, strictly speaking, my dad backed the horse for me, as I was eight years old at the time. Moolahs Memory was an 80-1 outsider and ran like it, though he did beat one of his 11 opponents to the wire. A couple of races later, I picked out another outsider, Kings Flier. He sounded fast and finished second. The place payoff at 13-1 meant I left the course feeling rich beyond dreams.
In hindsight, it was perhaps a more formative moment than it might have seemed at the time. I never forgot the name of either horse, which is why I can be so sure of the date. When my job took me back to the same track 39 years later, there they were in the official form book, on a Thursday afternoon at the fall meet in 1973. My memory was spot on about the $13 payoff, too.
You read that right: fall and dollars.
The track was Santa Anita in California, a place once experienced is almost impossible to forget. Even now, nearly half a century on, I can vividly recall the looming backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains, the palm trees, the hustle of the cavernous betting hall underneath the magnificent main stand and a bugler in a huntsmans jacket tooting Reveille before every race. It will always get my vote as the most spectacular setting for any sport, anywhere.
This year, though, what would normally be the glorious prospect of another return to Santa Anita is tinged with apprehension. A sudden spike in the number of fatal injuries to horses while racing or training there in the first six months of the year placed welfare standards at the track and by extension, in American racing as a whole at the centre of unprecedented, unrelenting media scrutiny.
As news of fatalities arrived with grim regularity through January, February and March, Santa Anitas management seemed to be struggling to cope with the unfolding catastrophe. Many possible reasons were suggested for the sudden surge, including a deteriorating track after an unusually wet and cold winter; the ubiquity of race-day drugs in US racing and their potential role in masking underlying physical issues; and sheer bad luck. There were claims, too, that trainers were under pressure from the management to run horses regularly to maintain field sizes and the allimportant betting handle.
In June, as Santa Anita closed for a three-month highsummer hiatus with the number of horses killed since Christmas standing at 30, there was talk that this years Breeders Cup meeting, the most valuable event in the American racing calendar, could be moved elsewhere.
The organisers stayed loyal, pointing to a series of new protocols introduced by Santa Anita in conjunction with the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). Horses are now subject to much more detailed pre-race scrutiny by vets, an independent panel reviews all horses declared to race and there is also a concerted attempt to phase out the use of the raceday medication Lasix, although this is being resisted by significant numbers of trainers and owners.
From the admittedly limited evidence available since the start of Santa Anitas fall meet on 29 September, the early signs are encouraging. Two of the 889 starters on 15 cards have suffered fatal injuries, a rate of 0.22%, which is very close to that in British racing. Two more have died after suffering injuries while training. Meanwhile, down by the Pacific coast at Del Mar near San Diego where the surf meets the turf the entire 36-day summer meet was run with the same new procedures and passed without a fatal injury.
But still the sense remains that Santa Anita, one of racings most precious jewels, is one primetime catastrophe away from a return to the misery and uncertainty of the first half of the year. The Breeders Cup is one of the few racing events on network TV.
The new protocols are all fine and good but, for the moment at least, they are still racing on drugs and still running on dirt, when there is evidence from Santa Anita itself that a synthetic track would cut the rate of fatal injuries by at least 50%. California led the way in what proved to be a short-lived experiment with synthetics in the US about a decade ago. In 2009, the last full year Santa Anita raced on a synthetic surface, the fatality rate was 0.84 per 1,000 starts. In 2010, when dirt was reinstalled halfway through the year, it rose to 1.53 per 1,000 starts. In every year since, it has never dipped below 2.04, and has been as high as 2.94.
Animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which opposes what it calls speciesism, or a human-supremacist world view, have understandably been unrelenting in using the events at Santa Anita to advance their cause. In the eyes of the most fervent advocates of animal rights, even one death in a million starts would be one too many, regardless of the huge economic benefits attached to racing or the fun and relaxation it brings to its fans.
Californians will end horse racing at the ballot box, the activist April Montgomery told the CHRB this year. Were going to end it [all horse racing] and its going to start with California.
Since California is a state where direct democracy is a way of life, this is no idle threat. In the past decade, voters there have been polled on issues as varied as the legalisation of marijuana, a ban on single-use plastic bags and whether adult movie stars should wear condoms. Some see a vote on banning horse racing as only a matter of time. A fatal injury to a runner at the Breeders Cup could yet be the event that makes it a reality.
The worldview of the most extreme rights activists has no room for nuance. They believe racing is cruel and that, by extension, all those involved in it are either inured, or oblivious, to the cruelty. Or, worse, that they recognise it, but just dont care.
In reality, most racing people professionals and fans are attracted to the sport by a love of horses and the 300-year-old thoroughbred breed above all. No one wants to see them injured or killed and there is a real sense of loss when a hugely popular horse such as Wicklow Brave, who suffered a fatal fall in the American Grand National last week, is killed on the track.
But we also see the 997 or so in every 1,000 runners that do what thoroughbreds have been bred and trained to do for centuries and then return to their stables to enjoy standards of care well beyond those of most domesticated animals.
It will be, as ever, a delight and a privilege to return to Santa Anita this week, when around 30 European horses will be taking on their American counterparts in 13 of the best races of the year. Magicals duel with Sistercharlie in the Filly & Mare Turf should be a highlight, while Anthony Van Dyck, the Derby winner, is in the running in the Turf.
The most earnest hope, though, is that 70,000 racegoers will leave with memories only of the setting, the excitement and the spectacle, like an eight-year-old from Brighton did back in 1973.