A look into the recent increase in horse deaths at Santa Anita Park
In 1978, due to horse racing being deemed as a game of skill rather than chance, betting on horse races was made legal and the horse racing industry has been growing since then. With big-name races like the Kentucky Derby held every year, fans flood Churchill Downs racetrack to try to win big.
According to the New York Post, the amount wagered on the 2019 Kentucky Derby increased 10% compared to the 2018 race, for a total of $165 million. For the first time in about 140 years, the horse that won the derby, Maximum Security, was disqualified for an illegal maneuver. While this shocking and controversial result shed a new light on the sport of horse racing, there is still one aspect of horse racing that remains unanswered.
Since December of 2018, 24 horses have died at Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, Calif. With deaths occurring as recent as earlier this month, racing enthusiasts and animal lovers alike all wonder why these unfortunate events keep occuring. With the horse racing industry valued at $39 billion, according to a Purdue University study, it is worth examining some of the problems that the sport often faces. Over the last few months, many have pointed to the use of Lasix, a drug commonly used in high-level racehorses in the United States.
“It is very common that many horses have a condition called exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, the Equine Medical director at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis and full-time member of the California Horse Racing Board. “When they are at peak performance, the alveoli [in the lungs] bleed because of high blood pressure. Furosemide [Lasix], got started by being prescribed in humans to lower blood pressure many years ago [and is used for the same reason in racing horses].”
Despite the recent storm of protests blaming drugs like Lasix as the cause of the increasing number of racehorse deaths, Arthur assures that, although this drug may not be necessary to use, it is not the cause of the problem.
“Horses seldom have exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage that is fatal,” Arthur said. “Horses race around the world without lasix and they are fine and just as healthy as they are in the United States, so I don’t think that horses have to have Lasix. The problem is that what we have done in the U.S. is raised a generation of horsemen who have no experience training horses without Lasix, so it’s a difficult for them to see horses racing without a medication that does reduce hemorrhage. Lasix reduces the risk but doesn’t cure the problem.”
Though some may still believe that Lasix is one of the primary causes of the rise in racehorse deaths, Arthur says the drug has no correlation to this phenomenon. Rather, it is due to problems with the muscular and skeletal systems in horses.
“When you look at racing fatalities, they are musculoskeletal problems about 95% of the time, which are usually associated with repetitive stress-type injury” Arthur said. “Other scientists have been able to identify a number of pre-existing lesions that are associated with fatal catastrophic injuries. Some of those are not amenable [diagnosed] to current diagnostic techniques.”
The majority of injuries with racehorses, according to Arthur, come from an already existing problem with the horse or an imperfect race track that can cause stress on the horses’ legs. Current research is being done to create new pieces of equipment to better diagnose pre-existing injuries in racehorses that current techniques fail to notice. Hopefully with this research, for future horses, these lesions can be detected and treated early before the problem presents itself with the passing of the horse.
“I would hate to think that horse racing is something of the past,” Arthur said. “It is certainly a different environment. I actually look at this unfortunate incident as an opportunity. It is like the Boeing situation, nobody wants regulation until there is a catastrophe. I believe there are opportunities to get done some regulations that we have been trying to get for years. It has awoken people to the fact that we have to do a better job in ensuring the safety of horse racing. The fact is that they [horses] don’t talk to us and we have to try to better understand when horses are at risk.”
While the fate of this $39 billion sports industry is currently unknown, it is clear that improvements are underway, with the hope that horse racing can continue to be a sport that many can enjoy for years to come.
Written by: Ryan Bugsch — firstname.lastname@example.org