By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California’s governor on Wednesday signed legislation allowing state officials to suspend or shut down horse races with little notice, responding to a furor over the death of 30 horses since December at the famed Santa Anita track near Los Angeles.
In signing into law the legislation known as SB 469, passed unanimously by state lawmakers earlier this week, Governor Gavin Newsom gave the California Horse Racing Board greater leeway to step in when concerns are raised over track or animal safety.
Earlier this month, Newsom created a state government panel to evaluate horses set to race at Santa Anita, which is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup in November. That panel has the power to scratch any animal it considers too great a risk.
“Business as usual has resulted in too many horse deaths,” Newsom said in a written statement announcing the bill signing. “I call on race tracks around the state to hold themselves to the higher screening standards recently adopted at Santa Anita. This model can save horses’ lives.”
On Saturday, a Hall of Fame trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, was banned from racing or training at Santa Anita after a horse under his supervision that had been scratched by the panel from a previous race was euthanized following a training injury there.
The death was the 30th of the season at Santa Anita and the fourth involving a horse trained by Hollendorfer, who in an interview with Reuters called the move “premature and extreme.”
Although the California Horse Racing Board had already held the authority to suspend or move races if it believed that human or animal safety was at risk, the new law allows for members to act on an emergency basis, without being limited by public notice rules.
The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, said earlier this month the track would remain open until the end of the season despite calls from Newsom and the California Horse Racing Board to suspend racing.
Animal rights activists, some of whom have called for the sport to be banned entirely from the state, cheered the banning of Hollendorfer but said new laws were needed in response to the spate of deaths.
In March, Santa Anita banned medications and use of whips after the death toll of horses rose to 21 – double that of the previous season.
The animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, welcomed the move, saying the ban would include anti-inflammatory drugs known as “bute,” which it said had been excessively used to mask horses’ discomfort from pre-existing injuries, keeping them in competition when they should be resting.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Bill Tarrant and Tom Brown)