Dozens of California racehorse deaths shape new law that lets state suspend licenses

In response to dozens of racehorse deaths at a California track, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law Wednesday allowing the state Horse Racing Board to temporarily suspend racing licenses due to rider and animal safety concerns.

Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, introduced Senate Bill 469 in response to a string of horse deaths at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, which drew harsh criticism from Newsom and other officials.

Thirty-nine horses have died at the track this year because of injuries sustained during races or training, California Horse Racing Board spokesman Mike Marten said. That’s compared to 37 deaths last year, 54 in 2016-17 and 57 in 2015-16.

“Business as usual has resulted in too many horse deaths,” Newsom said in a statement. “I applaud the Legislature for taking action to expand the authority of the (Horse Racing Board) to cancel or move race meets when animal and human safety are at risk.”

Previously, the Horse Racing Board could only put conditions on or suspend a license over rule violation allegations, not over safety risks.

Both the state Senate and the Assembly passed the bill unanimously Monday, after Newsom took the unusual step of endorsing the legislation while it was still making its way through the Legislature.

The law takes effect immediately.

Newsom also announced he had appointed equine veterinarian Gregory Ferraro to the Horse Racing Board. Ferraro previously served as director of the Center for Equine Health at UC Davis’ veterinary school.

The Horse Racing Board has launched a investigations into the deaths at Santa Anita racetrack. It has also banned the use of 11 medicines on the day a horse is racing that might hide symptoms and prevent a veterinarian from determining if an animal is injured, among other changes to aimed at increasing safety.

The Stronach Group, which owns the park, declined to comment through a spokeswoman. The group had resisted calls from Newsom and others to close the park, but said it implemented “wide-sweeping reforms” to reduce horse injuries.

“There are no acceptable losses, and every day we work toward ending all serious injuries,” the group said in a statement earlier this month.

The additional reviews put in place by the Newsom administration and the park resulted in 38 horses being scratched or denied entry at Santa Anita this month, according to Newsom’s office.

“I call on race tracks around the state to hold themselves to the higher screening standards recently adopted at Santa Anita,” Newsom said. “This model can save horses’ lives.”

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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