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Twenty-first horse sustains fatal injury at Santa Anita

A recent surge in equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park has sparked new rule proposals for horse racing, but will it be enough?

ARCADIA, Calif. -- A 21st horse has died at Santa Anita, with the latest fatality occurring during training, a person with direct knowledge of the situation said Tuesday.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the fatality has not been announced publicly.

The person said a 4-year-old filly trained by Hall of Famer Ron McAnally and owned by his wife Debbie was pulled up during morning training on the dirt track and was taken off by van. Lets Light the Way was later euthanized because of a right front leg injury.

A total of 21 horses have died since the racetrack’s winter meet began on Dec. 26. Of that number, seven deaths have occurred during a race on the dirt, five have occurred on turf and nine came during training on dirt.

In 2017, 20 deaths occurred among a total of 8,463 starts over a span of 122 racing days at Santa Anita, according to the most recent figures compiled by The Jockey Club.

There were 1.61 deaths per 1,000 starts in the U.S. in 2017, according to the most recent figures from the Equine Injury Database, compiled by The Jockey Club. That was a slight increase in the rate of fatal injury compared to 2016, when there were 1.54 deaths per 1,000 starts.

The majority of those deaths occurred on dirt surfaces (1.74 per 1,000 starts) compared to turf (1.36).

Track officials had already announced that Thursday’s racing was canceled and racing won’t resume until Friday, although the track is open daily for training.

Last week, Santa Anita was closed for two days while the dirt surface underwent extensive testing.

Mick Peterson, a soil and safety expert from the University of Kentucky who was brought in, proclaimed the track “100 percent ready” to resume racing.

Peterson said radar verified all of the materials, silt, clay and sand, as well as moisture content, were consistent everywhere on the track. Its dirt surface was peeled back 5 inches and reapplied.

Since Peterson’s comments, two horses have died, including McAnally’s filly. The 86-year-old trainer is one of the most respected in horse racing and has won three Eclipse Awards as the nation’s outstanding trainer.

Lets Light the Way had one win in four career starts and earnings of $18,500, according to Equibase. She last raced Feb. 2 at Santa Anita. McAnally purchased the filly for $15,000.

McAnally didn’t immediately return a message left on his cellphone by the AP.

The other death occurred Saturday during the third race when 4-year-old filly Eskenforadrink was in the lead. Jockey Geovanni Franco pulled her up with an injury to her front leg. The filly was vanned off the track and later euthanized.

Track officials announced in a statement Tuesday that Dennis Moore is returning to Santa Anita as a consultant. Moore worked as track superintendent in Arcadia from 2014 until he retired on Dec. 31. He currently holds the same position at Del Mar and Los Alamitos racetrack in Orange County.

He was to be on site immediately as “a precautionary measure with regard to the condition of the one-mile main track.” The track’s statement made no mention of the latest fatality.

In 2014, Moore oversaw a major renovation of the dirt surface that used “El Segundo sand,” which was dug up in that coastal suburb for construction projects at Los Angeles International Airport. The sand was screened for foreign materials and large rocks.

At the time, track officials said the reddish-brown sand would ensure balanced drainage during periods of wet weather and a consistent, safe cushion for horses year-round.

Santa Anita received 11 1/2 inches of rain and had unusually cold temperatures in February, but it’s unknown whether track conditions have played a role in any of the fatalities.

The National Weather Service is forecasting 1 to 2 inches of rain in Los Angeles County starting Tuesday night and into Wednesday.

The number of deaths has drawn both concern and criticism, much as it did in 2016 at Del Mar, California’s other major racetrack located north of San Diego.

That year, 16 horses died during the summer meet. Ten of those fatalities came during training and the other six were in races.

In 2017, Del Mar had six fatalities.

Santa Anita is set to host the Breeders’ Cup world championships in November for a record 10th time.

A handful of animal rights activists gathered outside Santa Anita’s main gate on Sunday, carrying signs and shouting.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, said in a statement last week, “We consider the safety and security of the athletes, both equine and human, who race at our facilities to be our top priority. All industry stakeholders, including our company, must be held accountable for the safety and security of the horses and we are committed to doing just that.”

The track will host a major day of racing Saturday, including the $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap for older horses and the $500,000 San Felipe Stakes for 3-year-old Kentucky Derby hopefuls.