Santa Anita's racing season closes with sport of kings on the line

ARCADIA, California — Jason Muñoz looked out at the pristine dirt and turf tracks at Santa Anita Park, bathed in sunshine beneath the sentry-like backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains, and said: “Sad. So sad.”

It was Muñoz’s first visit to Santa Anita, on the closing day of the racing season at one of the premier horse racing venues in the country, home to the storied Breeders’ Cup. He’d come on Sunday with family and friends “for the experience,” he said, but only after he’d done some research on the 30 horses that have died or been put to death at the raceway since late December.

Muñoz likened the magnificent half-ton horses that would round the mile-long dirt track and the slightly shorter turf track that it rings to other world-class athletes, the football and soccer stars who risk crippling injury for the enjoyment of the paying audience.

“They’re the ones providing the entertainment,” he said. But unlike the human athletes, the horses have no say in the matter.

“If there needs to be reforms, I fully support that,” he said.

Those reforms have already started. The track was closed for nearly all of March; when it reopened on March 29, it did so under new rules: Jockeys had to give up their whips for softer cushion crops, and officials sharply clamped down on the use of medicines, including Lasix, an anti-bleeding and diuretic medication that’s used to prevent respiratory bleeding in horses, which can cause fatal pulmonary hemorrhages. The American Veterinary Medical Association reported in 2015 that opponents of Lasix “believe a key motivation is the lift in performance seen in horses administered the powerful diuretic.”

But horses kept on dying or suffering fatal injuries.

On June 10, the California Horse Racing Board recommended that Santa Anita suspend the rest of its season. The track’s owner, the Stronach Group, refused, and because the racing board doesn’t have the authority to close a track on its own, horses entered the gates at Santa Anita again this weekend.

On Saturday, American Currency, a 4-year-old gelding, suffered a leg injury while exercising and was put to death, the racing board said — the fourth horse trained by Jerry Hollendorfer to have died this season.