California regulators mull trainer penalties for horse deaths

California regulators mull trainer penalties for horse deaths
Photo: Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire

After a devastating 2018-19 season at Santa Anita that saw 37 horses perish, the California Horse Racing Board received a clear mandate from politicians in Sacramento: Reform the beleaguered track and the state’s horse-racing industry as a whole. Or risk losing it entirely.

“I’ll tell you, talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in September 2019. “That’s horse racing.”

California would wind up with 144 equine deaths related to racing or training for the full 2018-19 fiscal year. Fast forward to the present. After a raft of safety and welfare initiatives enacted by the CHRB over two-plus years, California is in the midst of its safest era on record.

Last month, the CHRB reported equine deaths for the 2020-21 fiscal year had been cut in half to 72.

"I stated that our primary focus would be on health and safety and horses and riders,” said Dr. Greg Ferraro, who took over as the CHRB chairman in November 2019. “We’ve come a long way in fulfilling that promise. I assure everyone that we will remain committed to that effort.”

To that end, the CHRB shared at its monthly meeting on Aug. 18 that it was beginning to explore an idea that is believed to be the first of its kind in North America, if not the world: penalizing trainers if a horse in their care is injured or dies.

Two weeks ago, the CHRB sent out an advisory that its medication, safety and welfare committee would convene Monday, Sept. 13, to discuss this topic exclusively. But that meeting was scrapped because of what CHRB executive director Scott Chaney said was a scheduling conflict. The committee now is slated to take up the proposal on Oct. 19.

Chaney told Horse Racing Nation on Thursday that next month's committee meeting will be purely exploratory in nature. It will include input from industry stakeholders to help determine its future course and feasibility.

“Obviously, the committee can't make any decisions for the board. So the committee is just a good opportunity to sort of hammer out all the problems,” Chaney said. “We purposely made the description of the topic very general. There’s no language for a specific regulation that we are proposing. Really, it’s just an idea and we want stakeholder input, both positive and negative.”

Horse Racing Nation broached the topic with multiple Southern California trainers in the last week. While not wanting to go on the record without an official proposal, the reactions varied. Some felt it was regulatory overreach to penalize a trainer for equine fatalities or injuries. Others were open to the proposal, presuming the incident was first determined to be a result of negligence on a trainer's part.

Alan Balch is executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers, a state-sanctioned organization that represents the profession. All licensed trainers in California are automatically members of the CTT once they have started a Thoroughbred in the state.

Balch told HRN on Thursday that the CTT’s board of directors would meet in the coming weeks to discuss the issue. He declined further comment on the matter.

For his part, Chaney acknowledged that any action on the issue would need to be nuanced, given all the factors that can lead to an equine injury or death.

“I think it's fair to say that there are a certain category of fatalities that are not preventable, that would happen in any live animal population,” Chaney said. “Sickness, including colic and laminitis, and things like that. And certainly animals have accidents, especially horses. So part of the challenge would be writing a regulation that would only identify issues that are preventable."

Chaney added it also could prove difficult to come up with a regulation that is both workable and passes legal muster.

“I think, personally, that there's probably due process issues or fairness issues that would have to be worked through before this could ever become a regulation,” Chaney said. “This has probably never been done before. But if you accept the proposition that trainers know the most about their horses and therefore are in the best position to prevent catastrophic injuries, or any injury for that matter, then this seems like a logical question to ask.”

The CHRB convenes again Wednesday for its monthly meeting, with the second item on the agenda being a report from the medication, welfare and safety committee. No packet materials are included on the item.

Statistics below are provided by The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database:

Santa Anita

 YearNumber of starts Number of fatalities Fatalities per 1,000 starts 
2017 8,475 20 2.36 
2018 8,845 18 2.04 
2019 6,650 20 3.01 
2020 5,120 1.17 

Del Mar

 YearNumber of startsNumber of fatalitiesFatalities per 1,000 starts 
2017 4,002 1.50 
2018 3,812 0.79 
2019 3,219 0.62 
2020 3,417 0.29 

Golden Gate

 YearNumber of startsNumber of fatalitiesFatalities per 1,000 starts 
2017 8,233 15 1.82 
2018 8,897 10 1.12 
2019 9,374 0.64 
2020 7,304 1.23 

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