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Santa Anita Begins Fall Meet Under Cloud Of Controversy

ARCADIA (CBSLA) – Santa Anita Park in Arcadia kicked off its fall racing meet Friday amid the ongoing controversy swirling over dozens of horse racing deaths on its tracks.

Santa Anita Park begins its 23-day Autumn Meet under intense scrutiny following the deaths of 31 horses during racing or training during this racing season, which began in late December. A total of 67 horses have died during racing or training dating all the way back to the 2018 season.

Santa Anita Begins Fall Meet Amid Cloud Of Controversy
Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Sept. 26, 2019. (CBS2)

A 4-year-old gelding named Zeke was the latest horse to die. He had to be euthanized Sept. 17 after suffering a pelvic fracture during a workout, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In response to the growing outrage from animal rights advocates and politicians, in June California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill giving the California Horse Racing Board the authority to halt racing at Santa Anita if it so chooses.

Santa Anita officials announced earlier this week it will have a seven-member veterinary inspection team for the autumn meet, led by Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for track owners, The Stronach Group. The team will "oversee every aspect of Santa Anita's training and racing operation."

Benson told CBS2 Friday that checks are done on all horses prior to a race, and the veterinarians have the authority to pull a horse from the lineup if they see an issue.

"We pull every horse out, we feel its legs, make sure there's no swelling, no heat, no signs of inflammation. And then we watch them jog, and that's how a horse communicates with a veterinarian, is they tell us they are sore by how they move."

Benson has only been in the chief vet position since May. She said the number of veterinarians that do pre-race checks was increased from three to seven in response to the controversy.

"We have several vets that are checking the horses right now, that are racing this afternoon, to make sure they are fit and sound and healthy," Benson said.

"We continue to grow and continue to learn every day on how to make things better and safer," said jockey Aaron Gryder, who will be competing with Secret Courier Friday. "And No. 1 is the safety of the horses."

Racing at Santa Anita was temporarily suspended in February – following the 19th horse death — and again for most of March – following the 21st horse death — so experts could conduct testing on the park's three tracks – the main, training and turf tracks — to try and pinpoint the issue. None of the horse deaths have occurred on the training track.

In mid-March, Santa Anita officials announced a series of new measures to help bolster the safety of horses at the track, including restrictions on certain medications, requiring trainers to get permission in advance before putting a horse through a workout, and investing in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.

In April, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced the creation of a task force to investigate the deaths.

Santa Anita was mired in controversy again earlier this month when the New York Times published a report alleging that 2018 Triple-Crown winner Justify had failed a drug test after the Santa Anita Derby, and the California Horse Racing Board kept the test result secret. Prominent trainer Bob Baffert vehemently denied that Justify was intentionally given performance-enhancing drugs, instead saying that that the Scopolamine found in Justify's system after the horse won the Santa Anita Derby in April of 2018 was due to Jimson Weed in his feed.

Animal-rights group PETA provided CBS2 the following statement Friday:

"We welcome Santa Anita's precautions and safety measures to protect horses. But California and all other racing states must enact stronger legislation to ban all medications in the two weeks before a race, mandate safer synthetic tracks, install the CurveBeam CT scan equipment to detect pre-existing injuries, get rid of trainers and veterinarians who violate the law, and be completely transparent. We're still waiting for the California Horse Racing Board to release documents related to Triple Crown winner Justify's positive drug test from last year's Santa Anita Derby. Death and secrecy must end now."

The Autumn Meet will be highlighted by the Breeders Cup World Championships on Nov. 1-2. It's only the tenth time the track has hosted the Breeders Cup.

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)

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