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Spike in horse fatalities at Santa Anita Park casts shadow over racing industry

Santa Anita Park is one of the country’s most famous and storied horse racing venues, and this weekend it was due to host a major prep contest for May’s Kentucky Derby. But a spike in deaths among horses training there -- 21 have died since December 26 -- has prompted the track to close for testing, amid rising alarm from critics who fear the sport is too grueling to begin with. John Yang reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    A spike in deaths among race horses has triggered the indefinite shutdown of one of the most famous tracks in the country.

    As John Yang reports, it's shining a spotlight on questions about the welfare of horse racing's four-legged athletes.

  • A note:

    This story includes images that some viewers may find disturbing.

  • John Yang:

    This was to be a big week at Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. A major prep race for the Kentucky Derby was set for Saturday. Instead, it will be silent, all racing and training suspended indefinitely.

    Since December 26, 21 horses have died while training or racing. That's almost double the track's fatalities in all of 2018. The most recent race fatality was this past weekend. A horse named Eskenforadrink was in the lead, when she broke down. The 4-year-old filly's ankle was injured beyond repair. She had to be euthanized.

    The spike in devastating bone fractures at Santa Anita is renewing focus on the racing industry's practices. Public attention was heightened in 2008 when the filly Eight Belles had to be put down after finishing second in the nationally televised Kentucky Derby.

    Santa Anita is the home track for Bob Baffert, who's trained two Triple Crown winners.

  • Bob Baffert:

    We love these animals. We don't send them out there thinking something bad's going to happen. And it's stressful.

  • John Yang:

    Other horses have been injured, but not badly enough to endanger their lives.

    One is owned by Larry Peal.

  • Larry Peal:

    It was running in a race, and then we found out after the race that it needed an operation, and it had a fractured knee and chips in the other knee.

  • John Yang:

    Some blame this year's unusually wet Southern California winter.

  • Bob Baffert:

    I think the rain had — probably had something to do with it, these record amounts of rain.

  • John Yang:

    Horse owner Larry Peal says all that water has left the track hard.

  • Larry Peal:

    The track was pretty much like the 210 Freeway. It was concrete.

  • John Yang:

    Last week, Santa Anita shut for two days, so experts could examine the main dirt track.

  • Michael Peterson:

    We're looking at everything. The ground-penetrating radar allows us to look through the layers. And it's the way that we check that the base, cushion and pad are all of consistent thickness.

  • John Yang:

    After reopening, two more deaths, triggering the current closure.

    In a statement, a Santa Anita official said: "While we are confident further testing will confirm the soundness of the track, the decision to close is the right thing to do at this time."

  • Mike Willman:

    We readily acknowledge it's an athletic endeavor. Injuries happen. You want to minimize the effect of the injuries, and you want to stay away from the big ones.

  • John Yang:

    Animal rights protesters say horse racing practices in general are to blame. They accuse trainers of pushing horses too hard and drugging injured horses to keep them running.

  • Woman:

    Outrage. I mean, one death is one too many. It shouldn't happen.

  • Charles Knauf:

    A lot of these beautiful animals are dead now. And who's going to answer to that?

  • John Yang:

    Eighty-five-year-old Santa Anita Park is one of the most storied tracks in America. In Hollywood's golden age, it was a gathering spot for movie royalty, like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich. Bing Crosby was a part owner.

    In modern Hollywood, it's been the filming location for movies like 2003's "Seabiscuit." And now, after so many horses have died, Santa Anita is shuttered,, with a date for its reopening uncertain.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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