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What We Know About The Deaths Of 21 Horses At The Santa Anita Racetrack


Earlier this week, a filly was euthanized at the Santa Anita track outside Los Angeles. That death brings the number of horses who have suffered fatal injuries to 21. That's in the last three months. This spike has led the park to shut down racing indefinitely.

For more on this, we're going to speak with Rick Baedeker. He's executive director of the California Horse Racing Board. He joins us now from Sacramento. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: What are you hearing from trainers and jockeys out of Santa Anita?

BAEDEKER: We're hearing frustration and worry and concern more than anything else. There's no obvious answer. So every question is being asked. Is it the surface? Is it the horses that are running on the surface? Are we seeing more injuries than usual? Everything is being asked, and because there isn't an explicit obvious answer, management closed the racetrack.

And I should point out, as a matter of fact, that the California Horse Racing Board regulates the industry. We don't operate it. We don't manage it. So we license Santa Anita to conduct the race meet, but it is up to management to provide safe conditions for the racehorse.

CORNISH: And we should mention the owners of Santa Anita - The Stronach Group - do you think they're doing enough to get to the bottom of this?

BAEDEKER: I would say what they're doing now is absolutely appropriate - having closed the track indefinitely, having brought in Dennis Moore, who is known around the country as one of the top experts in maintenance and care of the racetrack. So what they're doing is absolutely appropriate. They've stopped, and they're assessing the problem. And then they're going to evaluate what can be done to fix it and how long that will take.

CORNISH: The animal rights group PETA is protesting. They're asking the LA district attorney to investigate. Is that the appropriate action?

BAEDEKER: Well, anybody can ask for an investigation. That's their right. But we investigate every fatality at the racetrack. If, as a matter of fact, anything is found as a result of a necropsy, any substance that shouldn't be there, then we file our own complaint against that licensee and action is taken and discipline is administered.

CORNISH: You've been in this business for a long time, right? I mean, you essentially grew up in it. Have you seen anything like this, I mean, 21 horses in just a few months?

BAEDEKER: No, I haven't. We have had, you know, short periods of time where there have been numerous losses and the alarm bells have gone off, but nothing like this. A more recent one was a few years ago at Del Mar, and they had installed a new turf course. And there were a number of horses that were injured on the turf course. And there was a clear cause and effect there. We knew that the turf course wasn't mature, that the grass wasn't long enough and that the soil underneath it was too compact. That was easy in comparison to this situation that we have.

And, you know, it's such a contradiction because the people involved, whether they're fans or whether they're owners or trainers, the common thread is the affection for the racehorse. These horses are - they're individuals with personalities, and the people that care for them love them. So it's very, very frustrating. It's a nightmare for everybody involved in racing.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what's happening with the horses there now? I know this is a big season for you all. The Kentucky Derby isn't far off and racing schedules are pretty carefully managed.

BAEDEKER: That's a great question because you have the concern of horses that are pointing towards the Kentucky Derby or other races, but you have the more immediate concern of horses that are now kept in their stalls. Of course they're taken out and they're walked, but these are athletes.

They're remarkable athletes, and they love to run. They need to run. And I'd say from a regulatory standpoint, the more important need is the health and welfare of the horses that are now confined that need to get out and be able to exercise.

CORNISH: That's Rick Baedeker. He's executive director of the California Horse Racing Board. Thank you for your time.

BAEDEKER: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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