Track at Santa Anita Park
The track at Santa Anita Park. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A 4-year-old filly was injured during training at Santa Anita Park and subsequently euthanized Tuesday, the 21st horse to die at the track since Dec. 26, prompting its unprecedented closure for racing and training.

The track will undergo what officials called “additional extensive testing” during the closure. The Stronach Group, the track’s owner, announced late Tuesday evening it will conduct what it called “a comprehensive evaluation of all existing safety measures and current protocols,” during the closure.

“The safety, health and welfare of the horses and jockeys is our top priority,” said Tim Ritvo, The Stronach Group’s chief operating officer. “While we are confident further testing will confirm the soundness of the track, the decision to close is the right thing to do at this time.”

Hours after the death of Lets Light the Way, Santa Anita announced it had retained its former track superintendent, Dennis Moore, to inspect the racing surface. The track had previously canceled racing scheduled for Thursday due to this week’s forecasted rain, with racing set to resume Friday.

But hours later, the track opted to put all racing activity on hold indefinitely. Ritvo told the Daily Racing Form the suspension will give Moore — who retired from Santa Anita in December and is now track superintendent for Del Mar and Los Alamitos — sufficient time to thoroughly inspect the racing surface.

All stakes races scheduled for this weekend, including Saturday’s Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, the Grade II San Felipe Stakes and the Grade II San Carlos Stakes will be rescheduled.

Lets Light the Way, trained by Ron McAnally, was injured during a workout around 7:45 a.m. McAnally told the Daily Racing Form the filly suffered a “shattered sesamoid,” a bone in the knee or foot, and the horse was euthanized a short time later.

“To me, it’s the weather that is causing these breakdowns,” McAnally told the Daily Racing Form. “This is the first one I’ve had (this winter).”

Lets Light the Way earned $18,500 in four starts, including one win at Santa Anita last April.

Santa Anita was set to have five stakes races Saturday, including the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, in which Game Winner — who is undefeated in four starts and was named last year’s champion 2-year-old colt — was set to make his first 2019 start as he prepares for the Kentucky Derby.

Game Winner’s stablemate, Improbable, is undefeated in three starts and was also set for his 2019 debut in the same race for trainer Bob Baffert.

Other stakes races that had been set for Saturday were the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, Grade 2 San Carlos Stakes and the China Doll Stakes.

One stakes race — the Santa Ysabel Stakes — was set for Sunday.

Earlier Tuesday, the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, Chuck Winner, asked that the Santa Anita fatalities and plans for addressing them be discussed at the oversight board’s next meeting.

“The board has been in contact with Santa Anita on an ongoing basis as they have tried to deal with this situation,” according to a statement from CHRB. “The board is now examining other options to prevent additional fatalities. Chairman Winner has asked that the matter be placed on the agenda for the board’s March 21 meeting.”

Santa Anita was closed for two days last week so experts could study the main track to identify possible contributing factors to the spate of horse deaths.

Last Wednesday, Santa Anita officials said analysts conducting tests of the racing surface had declared it ready for reopening. Mick Peterson of the University of Kentucky, who evaluates the track’s soil on a monthly basis, said the track was “100 percent ready” for racing to resume.

“The ground-penetrating radar verified all of the materials, silt, clay and sand, as well as moisture content, are consistent everywhere on this track,” Peterson said last week. “This testing ensures all components, the 5- inch cushion, pad and base are consistent and in good order.”

Racing at the track resumed last Thursday, but another horse, Eskenforadrink, also a 4-year-old filly, was injured during a race Saturday and had to be put down.

Races were held as scheduled Sunday.

Some animal-advocacy groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have called for a halt to racing at the track and for investigations into the trainers and veterinary records of the horses that have died.

PETA President Ingrid Newkirk called the closure of Santa Anita Park “the right thing to do.”

“The track should remain closed until the California Horse Racing Board dumps the drugs entirely, or injured horses whose soreness is masked by legally allowed medication will continue to sustain shattered bones,” Newkirk said.

“PETA renews its call for a criminal investigation into the trainers and veterinarians who may have put injured horses on the track, leading to their deaths.”

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.