The spate of racehorse deaths this year has Breeders' Cup under intense scrutiny

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) — After horse deaths marred this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and two more occurred days ahead of the world championships, safety at the Breeders’ Cup is under intense scrutiny.

For the first time, all 14 Cup races this weekend at Santa Anita will be run under the sport’s new national uniform set of medication and safety rules. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, created by Congress under the oversight of the Federal Trade Commission, is charged with keeping horses and jockeys safe.

The most extensive reviews of horses’ veterinary and treatment records in the 40-year history of the Breeders’ Cup will continue up to race day, with contenders subject to random physical exams at any time.

“We know equine fatalities is a complicated issue and that’s why we’re continuing to invest in resources,” Drew Fleming, president and CEO of Breeders' Cup Ltd., said Wednesday.

Of course, rules and exams cannot guarantee something won’t go wrong with these high-strung athletes whose delicate legs support their 1,200-pound (544 kilograms) weight.

Geaux Rocket Ride was euthanized Wednesday, four days after getting injured during a workout at Santa Anita. The 3-year-old colt was being pointed toward the $6 million Classic on Saturday. His owner, Pin Oak Stud, said he didn't recover from surgery for a condylar fracture of his leg.

Practical Move, a contender in the $1 million Dirt Mile, collapsed on the track after a gallop Tuesday. Breeders’ Cup officials said his death was due to “a suspected cardiac event.” A required necropsy will determine the official cause.

The Classic lost Belmont Stakes winner Arcangelo, who was scratched Tuesday because of an issue with his left hind foot.

Trainer Jena Antonucci erred on the side of caution after the 3-year-old colt’s foot showed excess heat, which can be a symptom of more serious problems.

“As we have said since Day 1, it is horse first,” she said.

Arcangelo’s owner said the horse was being retired and will begin his breeding career in Kentucky.

Kentucky Derby winner Mage didn’t even make it to California. He spiked a fever and his trainer decided to skip the richest two days in North American racing.

“Timing stinks but lucky we caught it early,” co-owner Ramiro Restrepo posted on social media. “Can’t run at below 100%; horse comes first.”

Tragedy struck the Breeders’ Cup in 2019, the last time it was held at Santa Anita.

Mongolian Groom fractured his leg during the running of the Classic on national television and had to be euthanized. He was one of 42 horses that died at the track that year, prompting a series of safety and medication reforms.

“The thing we can take from that is we have learned a lot and we have improved our protocols,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for 1/ST Racing, which owns Santa Anita.

She cited the December 2019 addition of a MILE-PET device, which is designed to image standing horses in an effort to reduce breakdowns.

“We’ve certainly made improvements. We just got to continue on that path,” said Lisa Lazarus, HISA CEO. “That's really probably all we can say and do as an industry.”

There were 12 fatalities at Churchill Downs last spring, including on Kentucky Derby day. HISA's investigation found no relationship between the deaths and the track surface, although the track followed HISA's advice to move the rest of its meet to another location.

At the Preakness two weeks later, a horse trained by Bob Baffert had to be euthanized on the track after an injury. On Belmont Stakes day, a horse in an undercard race was euthanized.

With history in mind, 1/ST Racing is conducting periodic inspections and testing of all racing surfaces before the Breeders’ Cup. The results of those tests, including daily track and weather conditions, are shared with participants.

Among other measures in place are pre- and postrace testing, out-of-competition drug testing, blood and hair follicle testing, a 96-hour window of security surveillance leading up to the event and independent exams by up to 30 veterinarians as well as observation of each runner on a daily basis.

Controversy has enveloped HISA since it was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2020. It took over from the 38 U.S. racing states that had set their own rules and meted out punishment for decades.

HISA has been the subject of lawsuits challenging its constitutionality. In September, new legislation was introduced in Congress to dismantle HISA and return power to the states to enforce the sport’s safety and medication rules.

“You’re taking livelihoods and making big sweeping changes and so there’s going to be an adjustment period, there’s going to be things that get messed up,” said Antonucci, who became the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race with Arcangelo’s victory in the Belmont Stakes.

“I feel they’re trying their absolute best to listen and shift and make meaningful changes for the long haul.”

Among the most scrutinized trainers at Santa Anita this weekend will be Rick Dutrow and Baffert, who leads all trainers in Breeders’ Cup purse earnings, with over $39 million.

Dutrow saddles White Abarrio in the Classic, his first Breeders' Cup runner since he returned earlier this year from a 10-year ban for medication violations.

Baffert will saddle three horses in the $2 million Juvenile on Friday and six others, including early 3-1 favorite Arabian Knight in the Classic, on Saturday.

He has been banned the last two years from entering the Kentucky Derby, a race he's won a record-tying six times, by Churchill Downs Inc. The company extended his ban to next year's Derby, saying Baffert hasn't accepted responsibility for Medina Spirit's failed drug test after the colt won the 2021 race and was disqualified.

In order to participate in the Breeders' Cup two years ago at Del Mar, Baffert agreed to unprecedented screening, observation and testing of his horses at his own expense, the result of multiple medication violations that year.

“I’m all for the testing,” Baffert told The Associated Press recently. “Our testing is probably the toughest (in all of sports).”

Noting the myriad changes California made after the spate of deaths in 2019, Baffert said the HISA rules are similar to what already has been in place in his home state.

“Change is hard in racing,” he said. “I can see every week they’re tweaking it for the better. They’re listening.”

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