No Answers for Mysterious Racehorse Deaths on California Tracks

Thursday, April 11, 2013
(photo: Associated Press)

Thoroughbred horses, which rarely just fall over dead, have been doing just that at a surprising rate on California racetracks.

Nineteen horses died suddenly of no apparent cause during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, according to the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). Another 17 have similarly died in the months since. Only six such deaths occurred in 2010-11 and four the year before that.

Several trainers told the New York Times they have never lost a horse to a heart attack or under these kinds of mysterious circumstances. But one who has is Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Seven of the 36 horses that died the past two years were in his care.  

“We have not been able to find the cause,” Dr. Francisco Uzal of the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System told the CHRB at a meeting in February. “We have done extensive toxicological studies. We have done, of course, all sort of other things—pathology and histology. We don’t know what’s going on.”

California does necropsies after each animal’s death, and two recent ones showed evidence of rat poison, but reportedly of a different type than used at California racetracks. One of the horses was trained by Baffert. Both horses died from internal bleeding.

Horse racing has been under scrutiny in recent years over track safety issues and for what is considered an excessive performance-enhancing drug culture, leading to too many injuries and deaths. CHRB equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur told the Times last year, “If the public knew how many medications these horses were administered after entry time, I don’t think they would tolerate it.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Examines Puzzling Trend of Horses’ Sudden Deaths (by Joe Drape, New York Times)

Baffert Horses Big Part of Sudden Death Spike (by Eric Mitchell,

California Horse Racing Board Reports Equine Fatalities Rose in State by 5 Percent in 2011-2012 (by Steve Andersen, Daily Racing Form)

Big Purses, Sore Horses, and Death (by Joe Drape, Walt Bogdanich, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Griffin Palmer, New York Times)

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