Morning workouts at Los Alamitos
Morning workouts in 2016 at Los Alamitos Race Course. File photo via Wikimedia Commons.

State officials on Friday put the Los Alamitos Race Course on a 10-day probation, following a cluster of fatalities.

The California Horse Racing Board called for track leaders to come up with a plan to address the issue. If not, they face a license suspension.

The decision came down the same day that racing opened at Del Mar, which also suffered a spate of horse deaths last year. Santa Anita garnered attention from activists throughout much of 2019. Almost 40 horses died at the track.

Three horses died at the race course in Cypress in the past 10 days. The fatalities prompted the board to call an emergency meeting Friday.

So far this year, there have been 29 horse deaths, including 19 that died while racing or training. The rest succumbed to gastrointestinal or other illnesses.

Gregory L. Ferraro, chairman of the board said “three has to (trigger) a thorough review.”

“I think there is a culture there with the veterinarians and trainers pushing the envelope,” he added.

Ferraro said he was “somewhat disappointed” that the racetrack’s general counsel, Drew Couto, addressed the issue before the board.

“I would have liked to hear more from management,” the chairman said.

The board ordered Los Alamitos to have a “feasible plan” to address the fatalities by July 20. Otherwise, Ferraro said, “we’re putting them on notice that we will suspend their license.”

The board voted 5-1 for the probation. Commissioner Wendy Mitchell cast the lone dissenting vote.

The board also discussed whether to halt racing at the course immediately. Members agreed though to allow races to continue during the probation period.

Commissioner Damascus Castellanos said he did not want to halt racing without having more information.

Ferraro called the fatalities at Los Alamitos and Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia “not acceptable.” He added that the board wanted to give the track “a chance to clarify the situation.”

Ferraro emphasized though, that “this is Los Alamitos’ problem to solve.”

Couto told the board that, “This year was on target to being an exceptionally safe year, but there was a cluster” of deaths in recent days.

Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, said there were two fatalities in March and then none for three months before the cluster of fatalities in the past week and a half.

Los Alamitos trended this year for the same number of fatalities as the previous fiscal year before the rash of deaths. Arthur said there has been some “questionable horse training” and questionable veterinary practices at the track, but that is not unique to Los Alamitos.

Dr. Rebecca Fitzgerald, who checks all of the horses at the track before and after the races, said she has an assistant. That aid allows her to focus on the health of the horses.

Fitzgerald could not explain what caused the fatalities.

“The horses in the cluster recently were not on any radar or suspicious in any way,” Fitzgerald said. “They were not on a course I was worried about.”

Arthur and the board’s executive director Scott Chaney noted that Fitzgerald is unpopular with many trainers because she won’t back down from scratching horses.

“That is a good sign,” Arthur said.

“To say she’s not popular among sportsmen is a bit of an understatement,” Chaney said.

But Chaney added that the board “fully supports her endeavors and the job she is doing over there.”

Horse racing opponents continue to picket at the track, calling for it to be shut down during the pandemic. Some activists asked the board to shut down racing permanently. They contend the sport promotes cruelty to horses.

– City News Service