National media have widely reported the death of the 19th racehorse in two months at Santa Anita and the closing of the main track while the cause is investigated. NBC Nightly News, for example, on February 26, 2019 devoted an entire segment to the carnage. 

Of the 19 horse fatalities, six were on dirt, five on turf, and eight in training. What do hard data reveal about the safety of Santa Anita’s dirt and turf surfaces? For context, in 2010, Santa Anita tore out the synthetic surface on its main track and replaced it with dirt; races were run on synthetic in the first part of the year and on dirt the latter part of the year, including the Breeders’ Cup.

The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database reports the number of equine deaths at Santa Anita from 2009 through 2017 as follows (figures for 2018 won’t be available until approximately mid-March 2019):

2009: 5
2010: 8
2011: 19
2012: 18
2013: 15
2014: 21
2015: 19
2016: 25
2017: 20

Horse fatalities began to increase in 2010 with the mid-year installation of the dirt track and then soared in 2011 by a multiple of 3.8 from 2009…and remained elevated through 2017.

The Equine Injury Database has been reporting horse deaths per 1,000 starts for numerous racetracks in North America since 2009. A comparison of average fatality statistics on dirt surfaces from “all racetracks” in North America to average fatality statistics on dirt at Santa Anita from 2010 through 2017 clearly demonstrates that the dirt track at Santa Anita is much more hazardous than the norm. 

From 2010 through 2017, the average fatalities per 1,000 starts on dirt surfaces for all racetracks in the Equine Injury Database was 1.95. By contrast, the statistic for Santa Anita was 2.51, or 29% greater than average.  In only one year (2014) did Santa Anita have a lower fatality rate on dirt than the average for all racetracks. In 2016, the fatality rate per 1,000 starts on dirt for Santa Anita was 84% higher than the fatality rate for all racetracks (3.13 vs. 1.70). 

The fatalities per 1,000 starts figures for turf racing at Santa Anita are also well above the norm for all North American racetracks. Over the years 2009-2017, fatalities per 1,000 starts on turf surfaces averaged 1.50 for all racetracks in the Equine Injury Database, whereas at Santa Anita the statistics were 2.24 for its main turf course and 2.80 for its downhill turf course.

The data conclusively demonstrate that Santa Anita is and has been a risky racetrack for horses, regardless of surface type. The 2019 fatalities are a continuation rather than a new phenomenon. Moreover, in 2010, Santa Anita swapped out one of the safest main tracks for horses (on a synthetic surface) for one of the least safest dirt surfaces in North America.

On Friday, March 1, Horse Racing Business will further discuss these results in Part 2.

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