Santa Anita Park Plans to Resume Racing on March 29

Santa Anita Park — which indefinitely suspended its races following the deaths of more than 20 horses in less than three months — announced late Saturday that it is planning to resume racing March 29.

Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, both owned by The Stronach Group, will race with “enhanced new safety and welfare protocols in place” under an agreement with the Thoroughbred Owners of California that still needs to be approved March 28 by the California Horse Racing Board, according to a statement.

The track has been closed for live racing since March 6 following the death of the 4-year-old filly Lets Light The Way, with officials saying that the main dirt track would undergo extensive testing. A 3-year-old filly, Princess Lili B, was euthanized Thursday after being injured during a morning workout.

Battle of Midway, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner, was the highest-profile fatality at Santa Anita since the racing season began Dec. 26.

The suspension of racing at Santa Anita caused the postponement of a series of stakes races, including the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, and resulted in several high-profile Kentucky Derby prospects, including Bob Baffert trainees Game Winner and Improbable, being sent outside California for races.

In an “open letter” issued Thursday after the 22nd horse death at the track,  The Stronach Group’s chairman and president wrote, “What has happened at Santa Anita over the last few weeks is beyond heartbreaking. It is unacceptable to the public and, as people who deeply love horses, to everyone at The Stronach Group and Santa Anita.”

Belinda Stronach wrote in the open letter that the company would take the “unprecedented step of declaring a zero tolerance for race-day medication at Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields.”

The subsequent agreement announced Saturday with the Thoroughbred Owners of California, however, allows Lasix to be used at a maximum of 50 percent of the current levels for all horses born before 2018. All two-year-old horses beginning in 2020 will be racing medication-free at the two California tracks owned by The Stronach Group, according to the statement.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ senior vice president, Kathy Guillermo, had lauded the announcement Thursday on race-day medications as a “groundbreaking plan” that would “set a new standard for racing.” 

But shortly after the weekend announcement, Guillermo said in a statement that “the owners’ claim that its use (Lasix) must be phased out and not ended outright is transparently bogus.” She vowed that “the public will join us in watching what happens to the horses.”

Activists from PETA had called earlier in the week for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to launch an investigation into the horses’ deaths, and a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office said Friday that investigators from the office have assigned investigators to work with the California Horse Racing Board.

Officials at Santa Anita have announced a series of changes since live racing was suspended, including: 

— the creation of an equine welfare director;

— a directive that allows the use of the cushion crop by jockeys solely as a “corrective safety measure” — something that Santa Anita officials say has already gone into effect during training hours;

— complete transparency of veterinary records;

— “strict limitations” on the use of any pain or anti-inflammatory medication and treatment;

— trainers being required to apply for permission to work a horse at least 48 hours in advance;

— increasing the time required for horses to be at the track before a race;

— and a “substantial investment” by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.

In the statement released late Saturday, Belinda Stronach said Santa Anita’s parent company is “committed to the principles of safe horse racing for both equine and human athletes and to make California racing the best in the world.”