AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Santa Anita Park in Southern California has been out of the headlines for a few days. That's welcome news at the famous horse racing track. Over the past three months, 23 thoroughbreds have died, mostly due to injuries from racing or training. The track was shut down for most of March, but it was open this past weekend for a major event. Still, the scrutiny from Congress to the LA County district attorney continues. And as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, throughout the racing industry, there's concern the future of the sport is at stake.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Santa Anita is nicknamed the Great Race Place, and Saturday, it was easy to see why.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And Lemoona's in the back.
GOLDMAN: From the grandstand along the stretch, a visual feast - a bright blue California sky, the San Gabriel Mountains, muscular thoroughbreds rumbling by on the dirt track.
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GOLDMAN: Beneath this festive scene, though, there was anxiety among those connected to the track. Their mantra had been just get through Saturday. Meaning, after 23 thoroughbred deaths, Santa Anita certainly didn't want another, not on a day when a national TV network would broadcast the Santa Anita Derby, a big prep race for the Kentucky Derby next month. This was jockey Joel Rosario after he rode in one of the day's early races.
JOEL ROSARIO: You know, just hopefully everything, you know, go nice and smooth and then, you know, we don't have any, you know, any problem, you know.
GOLDMAN: Steve Bazela was among the 30,000-plus paying and gambling customers on this day. He's been coming to Santa Anita since the 1960s, and he certainly didn't want to see what he saw just a week before - the catastrophic injury to a thoroughbred named Arms Runner, the most recent to die.
STEVE BAZELA: All you got to do is see that once or twice in your life, and it changes you. I saw a horse break down at the finish line about eight years ago here. I just literally walked to the parking lot I was so upset. I mean, they give you everything they got.
GOLDMAN: It changes you, but you're back.
GOLDMAN: You still love this sport.
BAZELA: Oh, I love it.
GOLDMAN: How'd it change you, then?
BAZELA: It just makes you more aware.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And they're off in the Santa Anita Derby.
GOLDMAN: The big race didn't disappoint. Horses trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert finished 1-2 and qualified for the Kentucky Derby. Baffert, the face of horse racing in this country, was thrilled and grateful for the fans who turned out and saw an entire day of injury-free racing.
BOB BAFFERT: We needed a lift. I know I did.
GOLDMAN: Catastrophic injuries happen in horse racing, but these spikes in deaths are not the norm, which is why Baffert warned against overreacting.
BAFFERT: You don't have to burn the house down just because the pipes are bad, you know? And so, you know, we're going to work through this, but I really think the weather really caused a lot of this.
GOLDMAN: He's not wrong. In January and February, Southern California got a ton of rain. It affected the multilayer dirt track at Santa Anita and posed a potential risk to the massive horses who need those layers just right in order to protect their legs. But Dr. Rick Arthur says you can't just blame the rain.
RICK ARTHUR: Frankly, we shouldn't have run on some of the days that we had a bad track.
GOLDMAN: Arthur is an equine veterinary specialist who's been based at Santa Anita for more than four decades.
ARTHUR: And some of the days when the track wasn't as good as it should have been, trainers shouldn't have trained their horses.
GOLDMAN: Those decisions, Arthur says, are driven by a reality that goes beyond Santa Anita to many of this country's racetracks, where the focus, he says, is more on economics than on horses. That, he says, is horse racing's real problem.
ARTHUR: Racing has become more competitive over a period of time. Horses are worked faster, and there's fewer horses to fit the slots that are available, so there's more pressure on the horses to race more frequently.
GOLDMAN: Getting the horse racing industry - track managers, owners, trainers - to buy into less racing and resting horses more, that's going to take a culture change, Arthur says. But he adds, if that doesn't happen and horses keep dying at higher rates, there's a unanimous belief in what will happen.
ARTHUR: If we don't make racing safer, I don't think the public's going to allow us to continue the sport.
GOLDMAN: There've been nine straight days of racing and training at Santa Anita without a horse dying. Considering the last three months, that's a big deal. The weather now is warm, and Arthur says the track is in great condition. The group that owns Santa Anita has implemented new rules regulating medication - always a controversial issue in horse racing. Also more veterinarians have been dispatched to observe training sessions.
Even the industry's harshest critic, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, praises the ownership group's action. But PETA is now turning its attention to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. In a statement yesterday, PETA said, quote, "Kentucky is on notice. Churchill Downs has the second-worst death rate for horses in the country." The organization says change is overdue, and it needs to come now. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.