Santa Anita track owners and trainers under investigation after 29 horse deaths

Article Image

Trainers are being investigated to see if they played any role in the string of 29 horse deaths at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California, this year. CNN's Nick Watt reports.

Posted: Jun 22, 2019 8:00 AM
Updated: Jun 22, 2019 8:00 AM

Trainers are being investigated to see if they played any role in the string of horse deaths at Santa Anita racetrack this year.

A total of 29 horses have died at the California course, and many wonder if the unusually heavy rainfall caused problems on the dirt track this season, though the death toll is lower than in recent years.

The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) is investigating that and has experts examining the remains of the dead horses for clues.

They are also working with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, which launched an inquiry into "whether unlawful conduct or conditions affected the welfare and safety of horses."

The CHRB, which governs the sport in the Golden State, declined an interview request from CNN. Results of the inquiry are expected sometime after the Santa Anita racing season ends Sunday.

Jim Cassidy, president of California Thoroughbred Trainers, an industry association, pointed to how the track owners responded to extremely wet weather at Santa Anita, which is usually arid, especially in the summer.

"They kept sealing the track. But, unfortunately, every time you seal it, the pad underneath gets harder and harder," he said.

But there are other issues, said Stefan Friedman, spokesman for The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita.

"It's not just the surface they're running on. There are medication issues," he said.

That's a question now being raised: Were trainers running unfit horses and using excessive medications?

Some 25 trainers have lost horses at Santa Anita this season, including Cassidy. Asked what happened, he said: "We haven't figured that out yet."

Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has lost three horses at Santa Anita since December and another two at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco, another track owned by The Stronach Group.

He has amassed nearly $200 million in earnings over a storied 40-year career. He's also been sanctioned 19 times by the CHRB since 2006, for overmedication or use of illicit medications on horses. CNN found no evidence of any successful appeals.

Hollendorfer is among the trainers whose records and actions are now under scrutiny by the Santa Anita owners. He declined to speak CNN.

"We've just gotten some information about what he's done and his violations," Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group, told CNN. "And so, we're considering whether he will be, every trainer, we're considering whether they will be welcome back to Santa Anita."

'Catastrophic breakdowns'

Scott Herbertson, a racehorse owner and professional gambler, believes some trainers are going too far.

"You got guys pushing these horses beyond their limits and causing these catastrophic breakdowns," he told CNN at his home in San Francisco's Bay Area.

And he points a finger at Hollendorfer, who in the last eight months has bought three horses that he previously owned. Two of them are now dead. They were badly injured in training or a race and were euthanized.

He has a special memory of a horse called Kochees, who would sway his head in acknowledgment when offered a carrot. "Smart, sweet horse," Herbertson said.

Hollendorfer and a partner bought Kochees after Herbertson entered him in a "claiming race" where the horses are offered for sale at a certain price and must be sold if someone wants to buy them.

Herbertson says he was about to give the 8-year-old horse -- a veteran in racing terms -- a break but decided to enter him in the claiming race in November. "He definitely had some nicks and needed time off," Herbertson told CNN.

Kochees died after a race at Santa Anita on May 25. The necropsy is under seal as part of the CHRB investigation.

Hollendorfer refused to speak to CNN, saying by telephone last week, "Don't call me again." After Kochees' death, Hollendorfer told the Associated Press: "We thought he would run real well, we thought he would win... In my mind there is absolutely no doubt that we've done every single thing properly with Kochees and all the rest of our horses, too."

Hollendorfer's fellow trainer, Bob Baffert, defended his friend last week. "What people don't understand is Jerry felt really bad when he lost those horses," Baffert told CNN. "He does take really good care of his horses. But I don't know ... he runs lower quality. Sometimes they can be... It's tough," he said, his voice trailing off.

Medications can mask injury

The Jockey Club, The Stronach Group and others say the excessive medicating of horses could be causing problems and leading to animals dying.

On its website, The Jockey Club states: "Improper drug use can directly lead to horse injuries and deaths. Horses aren't human and the only way they can tell us something is wrong is by reacting to a symptom. If that symptom is masked, the results can be devastating."

Dr. Sue Stover, a professor and veterinarian from UC Davis, says that more than 85% of horses that break down on the track had a pre-existing issue that was exacerbated.

Vets check every horse before it races at Santa Anita. But if that horse is medicated, the vet might not detect an issue that could later prove fatal.

The Stronach Group's Friedman said that is why they have now banned most medications at their Californian tracks within 48 hours before a race or training session.

"Stopping the potential masking of injuries. That is how you are going to reduce these numbers," he said.

Santa Anita officials have taken some action against trainers this year, ordering two to remove their horses. One of them, Mike Pender, is also now serving a 30-day suspension from the CHRB after training a horse with a fractured leg at Santa Anita and then shipping him to race at Golden Gate Fields. Pender declined to speak to CNN until after his suspension was over.

Trainer Billy Morey is under investigation after the cameras that are now in every barn at Santa Anita caught an assistant allegedly doping horses at the end of March. Morey denies the charge. He declined to speak to CNN.

Owners criticized

If horses are being pushed too far, there could be culprits beyond the trainers, said Cassidy of California Thoroughbred Trainers.

"I mean yeah, people like pushing," Cassidy told CNN. "Especially owners. They don't want to pay for them [horses] sitting out at some farm and not making any money." Cassidy says officials met with a group of jockeys last week.

"The jockeys are concerned, you know, 'I'm riding for a big guy I don't want to scratch the horse if he doesn't feel 100% because the guy will fire me or get mad at me,'" Cassidy said. "So, we've explained to the riders, 'Look, you blame it on the veterinarians.' You just say, 'Hey, the vet said no.'"

No national standards

Horse deaths are not just a Santa Anita issue -- The Jockey Club estimates that 10 horses died on American race tracks every week in 2018.

Hong Kong racehorses have the lowest loss rate, Santa Anita's Dr. Benson said, at about 0.5 per 1,000 starts.

Baffert, who is based at Santa Anita and won the Kentucky Derby last year, is among those who say getting the death rate down to zero is almost impossible.

"That's gonna be tough, to get it to zero, because it's sport," he said. "That's just like saying, you know, Kevin Durant's gonna be free of injuries... All these athletes. They're taped up, they're well-trained, best coaches. Still, they step wrong, they're gonna get hurt, twist an ankle."

And however strong the new rules are in California, that doesn't solve another problem, seen as fundamental by The Jockey Club: there is no national body that oversees this sport. Horses can be raced under the jurisdiction of any one of the 38 independent governing bodies.

"You go to a different state, you don't know what the rules are," says Cassidy of the trainers' association. "So, if it was uniform across the country, it would be great." The Jockey Club is pushing a Congressional bill that would create an independent, national body to oversee racing.

Opponents say horses sacrificed for $2 bets

Opponents of horse racing say the actions at Santa Anita and the broader push by The Jockey Club are just not good enough.

The Jockey Club number of horse deaths comes from statistics voluntarily submitted by tracks. Patrick Battuello, an anti-racing activist who has been collecting fatality data for his Horse Racing Wrongs website since 2013, believes the real number is much higher.

"We have documented over 5,000 confirmed kills on US tracks just since 2014," Battuello told CNN. "It's not a particular trainer problem. This is an industry-wide problem. This has been going on since the very beginning. And only now is it being exposed for what it is."

CNN has not been able to verify those statistics.

Battuello wants nothing less than an outright ban on horse racing in the US. "I'm telling you that over 2,000 horses are being killed every year," he said. "Even if they were to somehow magically halve that, would that be acceptable to the American public for, I remind you, nothing more than $2 bets and idle entertainment?"

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 16560

Reported Deaths: 794
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds107426
Madison76728
Lauderdale75968
Neshoba72844
Jones70133
Scott66312
Forrest59539
DeSoto57510
Rankin4569
Leake45212
Holmes44330
Copiah3294
Jackson31415
Attala31118
Yazoo2964
Newton2884
Lincoln28031
Leflore27736
Oktibbeha27314
Harrison2697
Monroe26925
Wayne2623
Lamar2505
Lowndes2479
Pearl River21231
Pike20411
Adams20316
Washington1987
Warren19610
Lee1948
Noxubee1936
Covington1792
Bolivar16911
Jasper1674
Clarke15619
Smith15511
Kemper15511
Lafayette1544
Chickasaw14014
Coahoma1314
Clay1254
Winston1241
Carroll11911
Marion1169
Claiborne1155
Lawrence1071
Grenada1074
Simpson1040
Yalobusha1046
Sunflower923
Tate911
Hancock9012
Union897
Itawamba897
Marshall873
Wilkinson859
Panola843
Montgomery841
Webster844
Jefferson Davis823
Tippah7611
Calhoun674
Amite661
Walthall640
Humphreys637
Tunica583
Prentiss533
Perry513
Choctaw502
Pontotoc473
Jefferson421
Tishomingo360
Greene331
Stone320
Quitman320
Tallahatchie301
George292
Franklin292
Alcorn191
Benton140
Sharkey70
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 18766

Reported Deaths: 651
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Mobile2321118
Jefferson1901104
Montgomery185843
Tuscaloosa83616
Marshall7089
Franklin5858
Lee56234
Shelby52819
Tallapoosa43466
Butler42118
Walker3862
Elmore3749
Chambers36026
Madison3534
Unassigned3062
Morgan3021
Baldwin2939
Dallas2923
Lowndes26512
Etowah26312
DeKalb2573
Autauga2415
Coffee2391
Sumter2287
Houston2265
Bullock2176
Pike2120
Colbert1902
Hale1859
Russell1810
Barbour1771
Marengo1756
Lauderdale1722
Calhoun1673
Wilcox1577
Choctaw15310
Cullman1521
Clarke1492
St. Clair1351
Randolph1287
Dale1240
Marion12411
Pickens1205
Talladega1195
Limestone1080
Chilton1071
Greene954
Macon934
Winston910
Jackson833
Covington821
Henry822
Crenshaw783
Bibb761
Escambia753
Washington736
Blount631
Lawrence510
Monroe462
Geneva440
Perry430
Conecuh411
Coosa401
Cherokee383
Clay282
Lamar280
Fayette160
Cleburne151
Tupelo
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 74°
Columbus
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 73°
Oxford
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 73°
Starkville
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 70°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather