After examining since April the spate of racehorse deaths over the past year and a half at California’s Santa Anita Park, the district attorney for Los Angeles County found “no criminal wrongdoing,” according to a summary of a 17-page report her office issued on Thursday.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey, following the findings of a task force she assembled, proposed several measures aimed at greater safety and transparency at California’s horse racing facilities.

“Horse racing has inherent risks but is a legally sanctioned sport in California,” Lacey said in a statement. “Greater precautions are needed to enhance safety and protect both horses and their riders.”

“A thorough investigation and review of the evidence did not find evidence of criminal animal cruelty or unlawful conduct relating to the equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park,” the report stated.

The historic racetrack, which opened in 1934 and was long a destination for Hollywood royalty, generated headlines throughout this year as horses continued to die as a result of injuries suffered while racing or training there.

According to the report, there were 49 horse fatalities at Santa Anita for the fiscal year that ran from the start of July 2018 through the end of June, plus seven more after that. Perhaps the most noteworthy, given the scrutiny the racetrack earned before hosting the Breeders’ Cup in November, was the euthanization of Mongolian Groom, 4-year-old gelding that suffered a broken leg as it charged down the stretch of the of the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

In March, Santa Anita announced it was closing indefinitely while it investigated the 21 horse deaths that had occurred there since it began its winter-spring meet last December. Experts brought in to examine the track surface could not find any major issues and the facility reopened later that month.

It wasn’t long before another horse had to be euthanized, prompting Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to call for a suspension of racing at Santa Anita. Shortly after that, Lacey announced the formation of a task force composed of “experienced deputy district attorneys and sworn peace officers with varied expertise within my office.”

The task force’s findings led to numerous recommendations, a few of which were highlighted in the summary:

  • “Urging the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) to prepare an annual racing fatality report that includes all equine fatalities at California racetracks and identifies contributing factors.”
  • “Mandating that all racing and training fatalities undergo thorough investigations conducted by sworn CHRB investigators that includes obtaining necropsy, training and veterinary records as well as interviewing people associated with the training, treatment and care of the fatally injured horse.”
  • “Evaluating the need to enhance penalties for CHRB violations of rules and regulations to reflect the severity of some violations and to serve as an effective future deterrent.”
  • “Establishing a tip line to encourage the reporting of suspected animal cruelty, horses at risk or illegal practices.”

Lacey’s finding of no criminal wrongdoing was met with disappointment by animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose senior vice president, Kathy Guillermo, said in a statement, “It’s beyond credible that the district attorney doesn’t see that trainers who medicate horses obviously know that they are injured and sore, so they should be criminally culpable if they then force them to race to their deaths.”

“Fortunately,” Guillermo continued, “the D.A. agrees with what PETA has said for the last decade: The racing industry has not done enough to protect horses on race tracks and the industry is dead itself unless it does far more. Legislation to increase transparency in this secret and deadly industry is essential, and PETA will continue to work to ban drugging, whipping and all abuse in California and every racing state. No sane person can find it acceptable for horses to suffer and die in a sport.”

The report stated (via drf.com) that the task force “did not uncover evidence indicating that an owner, trainer or jockey intentionally or knowingly raced an injured horse.”

“In many of the fatalities,” the report said, “the necropsies have revealed horses had preexisting medical conditions, but presented as asymptomatic. During Task Force interviews, treating veterinarians, trainers and riders confirmed they did not identify any red flags that would have alerted them to the horses’ preexisting degenerative conditions.”

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and other prominent race tracks including Pimlico in Maryland and Gulfstream Park in Florida, reacted in a statement, saying it was “gratified that the District Attorney’s report into the conduct and conditions at Santa Anita Park found no evidence of misconduct.”

The company thanked Lacey’s office for its “diligent work in this robust investigation.”

“We are all committed to the same thing — the highest level of equine safety and welfare — and we will continue to do everything possible to promote equine and rider health and safety."

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