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37 Racehorses Have Died At Santa Anita Park Since December


Millions of dollars were on the line at the Breeders' Cup Classic over the weekend, but the headline out of that race is not about which horse won. In the final stretch at Santa Anita Park, a horse named Mongolian Groom injured his leg and was later euthanized. Now, since December, 37 horses have died at Santa Anita. Jim Chairusmi is a sports editor at The Wall Street Journal. He was at Saturday's race. Good morning.

JIM CHAIRUSMI: Good morning.

KING: So when you were watching, could you tell what was happening, that this horse had been hurt?

CHAIRUSMI: Well, it's funny because I had a seat right at the finish line. And I was watching the winner who was surging ahead at the line. And then I heard a gasp in the crowd, and I looked back. And I saw the horse, Mongolian Groom, that was limp. And workers quickly rushed onto the track and set up a screen because the horse was injured right in front of the grandstand. So they basically were prepared for situations like this. And workers quickly gathered around the horse and set up the screen so that the crowd was shielded from what was happening.

KING: Thirty-seven deaths of horses in less than a year since December, all at the same racetrack. What is going on here?

CHAIRUSMI: Well, you know, a lot of people are trying to figure it out. I mean, I don't think there's one exact reason. The track - this past winter was unseasonably wet in Southern California, a place where it doesn't rain very often. And the track's owners - The Stronach Group - blames some of that for the drainage system. They repaired the dirt course and such. They closed a little bit in the spring. They reopened with a new dirt track and a new drainage system. That has not prevented the deaths, as we saw on Saturday.

KING: OK. I had read about performance enhancers being a factor. Can you talk about, like, are the horses being given drugs or medication or what's going on there?

CHAIRUSMI: Well, you know, there's been oversight since the deaths have been happening. There has been oversight. And there has been stricter post-race medication rules and pre-race medication rules. Every horse, for instance, during the Breeders' Cup was checked by three veterinarians. There were a lot of tests. So there are questions about whether this horse, Mongolian Groom, for instance, was sound, were there wellness issues? You know, the horse was checked over by three vets, but that doesn't mean that the horse might've been sore in one of its legs or something like that. We don't know.

KING: We just don't know. OK. Santa Anita is facing a ton of pressure after all of this. In September, California's governor, Gavin Newsom, said "the willingness to just spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace." That's a quote. Do you get the sense that California might be moving toward banning horse racing altogether? Is there enough outrage, you suppose?

CHAIRUSMI: Well, coincidentally - and also Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to the executive director of the California Racing Association and basically said we're going to be watching. The Breeders' Cup will be an example of, can you get through a big weekend of racing, you know, injury-free? And as we saw, 14 races happened, 153 horses ran, and the only horse that got hurt got hurt in the last of the 14 races in the stretch. So they were an eighth of a mile from being injury-free and then catastrophe struck.

KING: Just very quickly - we've been talking about Santa Anita, is this going on in other places?

CHAIRUSMI: Yeah, you know, to a lesser extent. I think the number is pretty staggering at Santa Anita with 37 horses since December 26. Look. I think in horse racing, the number will - probably will never be zero because, you know, these are thousand-pound animals.

KING: It's dicey. Jim Chairusmi, Wall Street Journal, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 4, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of the headline for this report misidentified Santa Anita Park by calling it Santa Ana Park. Additionally, a Web summary incorrectly identified the location as Santa Anita, Calif. It is in Arcadia.
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