ARCADIA, Calif. -- Horses at Santa Anita Park suffered fatal racing injuries at more than twice the rate of horses competing at California's other three major thoroughbred tracks over the last fiscal year, according to statistics.
The fatality rate at Santa Anita, in Arcadia, spiked after the switch from a synthetic running surface back to a dirt track in 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday (http://lat.ms/GMKIkF). The newspaper cited data from the state horse racing board that show there were 12 fatalities, or 3.7 per 1,000 starts, at Santa Anita in the last fiscal year.
By comparison, a total of 28 horses died during the same period racing on the synthetic surfaces at the three other major tracks -- Del Mar Racetrack, Golden Gate Fields and Hollywood Park -- or 1.8 fatalities per 1,000 starts.
Experts say track surfaces are a key factor in horses' deaths, along with training regimens, racing schedules, medications and breeding practices. Many researchers believe that synthetic surfaces are safer than dirt for racing, though it is unclear whether the same is true for training.
The issue has made headlines recently after the deaths of three horses during the production of the television drama "Luck," which was shot at Santa Anita. HBO canceled the series this month after the third incident in which a horse on the set suffered injuries and had to be put down.
Injuries that lead to horses being euthanized are common in racing. At tracks across California, 186 horses died after racing and training accidents during the last fiscal year, according to the Times report. An additional 79 horses died at tracks from other causes, including intestinal and respiratory diseases.
In 2006, the California Horse Racing Board gave the state's major thoroughbred tracks two years to replace their dirt tracks with surfaces that include polymers, wax and other synthetic materials. Tracks that changed to synthetic materials saw a 37 percent reduction in deaths over five years, the Times said.
But the new $11-million track at Santa Anita proved particularly difficult to maintain. By the spring of 2010, the drainage system had failed, and attempts to fix the problem only made things worse. Eventually rocks began to poke through the surface, and the trainers threatened a boycott.
The track's owners announced that they were giving up on synthetics. State officials granted Santa Anita an exemption, and the track was reconverted to dirt.
Synthetic surfaces lead to more soft-tissue, hind-leg injuries, according to many trainers. Fatality rates could be higher on synthetic surfaces during training, possibly because training takes place in the mornings and the properties of a synthetic track may change with temperature and humidity. The state horse racing board is gathering data to analyze the training risks.