March 15 (UPI) -- Santa Anita on Friday announced a unilateral ban on race-day medication of horses, describing the action as a "watershed moment" for the industry and a "seismic shift" in U.S. racing regulations.
The announcement follows 22 fatal breakdowns during training and racing during the Santa Anita meeting that opened Dec. 26. The track suspended racing March 5, canceling several important stakes races, and earlier instituted strict new safety protocols.
The ban on race-day medication at Santa Anita and Stronach's other California track, Golden Gate Fields, goes far beyond those steps and brings the tracks into compliance with the standards of the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities and most other racing jurisdictions around the world.
"What has happened at Santa Anita over the last few weeks is beyond heartbreaking," Belinda Stronach, president and Stronach said in a statement, referring to the fatal breakdowns. "It is unacceptable to the public and, as people who deeply love horses, to everyone at The Stronach Group and Santa Anita."
Major industry groups announced support for the decision. Previous efforts to limit race-day medication, however, have met stiff resistance from some horse owners and trainers whose horses require medication to compete and the Stronach Group decision is certain to roil the sport.
Stronach acknowledged the profound impact the action within the sport and pledged to work to address resulting issues.
"We recognize this will impact our field size as horses and horsemen adjust to this new standard," the statement said. "There will be horses that will not be able to race because they have required medication to do so. For those horses, we are prepared to dedicate the capital required to rehabilitate, retrain, rehome and provide aftercare for them. They deserve nothing less."
The long-term implications of a medication ban also could extend to the breeding industry and to the U.S. role in international racing.
Breeders' Cup Ltd., which is scheduled to stage its annual World Championships at Santa Anita in November, issued a statement supporting the decision.
Stronach also cited statements of support from Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of PETA, Stuart S. Janney III, chairman of the Jockey Club, and Joe Harper, CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
"We have arrived at a watershed moment," Stronach said. "The Stronach Group has long been a strong advocate for the abolishment of race-day medication, but we will wait no longer for the industry to come together as one to institute these changes. Nor will we wait for the legislation required to undertake this paradigm shift. We are taking a stand and fully recognize just how disruptive this might be." "There are some who will take a stand and tell us that it cannot be done. To them we say, 'The health and welfare of the horses will always come first.' We also say, 'Not only can it be done, it is what we are doing.' Racing at Santa Anita and Golden Gate is a privilege, it is not a right."
Stronach said Chuck Winner, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, "told us he personally appreciates the initiatives that the Stronach Group announced today" and will hold a meeting March 21 to discuss the situation.
Stronach did not address potential changes in policy for the group's other holdings, which include Gulfstream Park in Florida and Pimlico and Laurel Park in Maryland.