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California panel finds no criminal activity linked to horse deaths at Santa Anita Park

Santa Anita Park
Posted at 5:09 PM, Dec 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-19 20:09:39-05

(CNN) -- A task force that looked into scores of horse deaths at California's Santa Anita Park found no animal cruelty or criminal activity, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said Thursday.

The number of horses that were being euthanized or dying after accidents at the famed facility gained nationwide attention when officials briefly suspended racing in early March over concerns about the number of deaths.

"Horse racing has inherent risks but is a legally sanctioned sport in California," Lacey, who led the panel of prosecutors and investigators, said. "Greater precautions are needed to enhance safety and protect both horses and their riders."

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The task force looked into the 56 deaths that occurred between July 1, 2018, and November 30, 2019, and "did not find evidence of criminal animal cruelty or unlawful conduct relating to the equine fatalities."

The task force, formed in March, had recommendations for post-death investigations, identifying preexisting conditions, track maintenance and enforcement. It proposed an annual fatality report, facility investigations, enhanced penalties for violations, and establishment of a tip line to encourage reporting of suspected animal abuse.

CNN reached out to Santa Anita Park and to the California Horse Racing Board for comment but didn't get an immediate reply.

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When Santa Anita reopened for racing in late March there were numerous changes: Trainers had to apply two days in advance before working out a horse; jockeys had to replace whips with softer "cushion crops" and restrictions on steroids, anti-inflammation drugs and race-day medications were instituted.

The task force report says improved safety policies had "reduced the number of fatal racing and training incidents."

The report shows the 49 deaths in the fiscal year (July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019) were higher than the previous fiscal year but lower than the two years before then.

"Since 2009, the national average for catastrophic racing breakdowns has declined almost 20 percent," the report says.

The number of deaths listed in the report differs from those in recent media stories because the panel looked at a longer period of time. It included 49 deaths from the fiscal year 2018-2019 and seven since then. It also includes two horses that were not racers.