After 30 Horse Deaths, California Officials May Soon Have The Power To Shut Down Tracks

Santa Anita Park has been under fire after an unusually high number of horses died during the racing season.

The California Legislature passed a bill on Monday that would give horse racing officials broad authority to move or suspend races, just days after the conclusion of a racing season that saw 30 horses die at the state’s popular Santa Anita Park.

The bill, SB 469, would allow the California Horse Racing Board, or CHRB, to immediately halt racing at any track deemed to have dangerous conditions that could affect horses or jockeys. Under the current law, the CHRB does not have such authority and must complete a 10-day public notice period to suspend or move any events.

“We must take action now to protect horses and jockeys, ensuring safety is always paramount in California horse racing,” state Sen. Bill Dodd (D), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement after the vote. “Because clearly, there is a problem here, and we can’t sit back and do nothing.”

The legislation now heads to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has signaled that he supports it.

Santa Anita has been fraught with controversy in recent months due to the spate of deaths but had resisted any calls to suspend or move races. Both Newsom and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had said they were troubled by the deaths and urged the park to close until an investigation could be completed, as did the CHRB. If the board had had the authority to shutter the park two weeks ago, two horses would likely not have died.

But Santa Anita finished up its season anyway, running its last races on Sunday. The latest death happened just last week.

Santa Anita Park, which is owned by the Stronach Group, said earlier his month it had reached an agreement with the California Horse Racing Board to immediately implement upgraded safety measures amid the outcry. Under the revamped guidelines, a safety review team is tasked with conducting additional reviews of horses’ “medical, training and racing history” and given the authority to scratch any animals that aren’t deemed fit to compete.

The park has regularly defended itself against any allegations of impropriety, saying earlier this month that “horse and rider safety” were the priorities at the venue.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to making California horse racing the safest and best in the world,” Belinda Stronach, the president of the Stronach Group, said in a statement when the new safety measures were announced.

Santa Anita banned a Hall of Fame trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, last week after a fourth horse died in his care during the season, saying “individuals who do not embrace the new rules and safety measures that put horse and rider safety above all else” had no place at the venue.

“We regret that Mr. Hollendorfer’s record in recent months at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields has become increasingly challenging and does not match the level of safety and accountability we demand,” the Stronach Group said in a statement. “Effective immediately, Mr. Hollendorfer is no longer welcome to stable, race or train his horses at any of our facilities.”