'No stone unturned' in quest for Breeders' Cup horse safety

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Arcadia (United States) (AFP)

As Santa Anita Park continues to grapple with the fallout from 36 horse deaths so far this season, Breeders' Cup chief executive Craig Fravel said Wednesday that officials have "done everything humanly possible" to forestall disaster at this weekend's $28 million racing festival.

"I don't have any specific concerns about anything because literally no stone has gone unturned," Fravel said as officials from the Breeders' Cup and Santa Anita discussed the safety measures put in place at the scenic California circuit, which is hosting the Breeders' Cup for a 10th time.

"You can never say never," Fravel said. "I think we've done everything humanly possible to prevent anything from happening."

Santa Anita came under sharp scrutiny earlier this year when the first three months of its winter-spring meet saw more than 20 horse fatalities -- leading to a temporary shut-down in March during which the track owners the Stronach Group conducted tests of the surface and subsurface of the dirt track -- which revealed no apparent cause for the increase in breakdowns.

Stronach Group also announced a new iniative aimed at eliminating race-day medication for horses, including a reduction in the allowed amount of the diuretic Lasix which is used to prevent pulmonary bleeding.

By June there had been 30 horse deaths at the track, a number that rose to 36 last weekend.

While the rate of fatalities due to catastrophic injury has declined sharply in the second half of the year, plenty of outrage has remained.

Some animal rights activists have demanded an end to racing in California. An investigation by California law enforcement authorities is ongoing.

With the results of the California Horse Racing Board's own investigation still pending, Breeders' Cup officials were out in force on Wednesday to explain measures put in place to ensure horse safety this week.

- Unprecedented scrutiny -

"No horses racing anywhere have been more examined or more observed than these horses," said veterinarian Debbie Lamparter, who leads a team of on-site vets that will number 30 on Breeders' Cup race days.

Lamparter said every Breeders' Cup entrant had already been examined on site, and would be seen by vets at least three times before racing.

Vets will observe horses "at rest and in motion" in their stable areas, and vets posted around the track will watch them work and if they see any troubling signs refer the animal for diagnostic tests.

Dr. William Farmer, Breeders’ Cup Out-of-Competition Veterinarian and Advisor, said 252 potential Breeders' Cup runners had been drug-tested since June in seven US racing jurisdictions, Canada, France, Ireland and England.

Not all of them even made it to the 14-race showpiece meeting, but of those who have, 98 percent were tested before they got here.

He said out-of-competition tests were "aimed at the non-therapeutics, those are the medications that do not belong in a horse that are known for affecting a horse's performance."

In addition to the usual blood tests, testing of hair samples was added for 10 percent of the horses, and some of the 2-year-olds were tested for bisphosphonate -- a drug used to treat osteoporis in humans and approved to treat navicular syndrome, a painful hoof bone ailment, in older horses.

Some in racing fear its use in younger horses is hiding problems that could contribute to injury.

Farmer said that as of Wednesday, with testing continuing until race day, there had been "no positives, no suspicious samples."

While no single factor has been pinpointed as the major contributing cause of the Santa Anita breakdowns, Fravel said that amid the controversy he had seen a new willingness in a traditional sport to tackle problems which extend beyond Santa Anita and California.

- 'Major attitude change' -

"I think that it's very clear that horse racing, which is a traditional sport, has a new sense of openness, a new sense of transparency and a willingness to change and that's the first step to getting something done," he said.

Rick Arthur, the California Horse Racing Board's equine medical officer, said he had seen a "major attitude change" with horsemen now supporting regulatory changes they had resisted in the past.

Patchwork, state-by-state regulation makes it even harder to make changes in America, and Fravel is among those in favor of national oversight -- as recommended in legislation introduced in the US House of Representatives this year.

"Even without a legislative solution, I'm very confident that almost all of the things that are being done here at Santa Anita will be adopted on a national basis," said Fravel, who has testified twice before Congress. "Will we have perfect uniformity in the next six months? No.

"But I think in terms of the things that really matter we're getting very close to that."