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More than 100 horses have died in the past two years at Gulfstream Park, making it one of the deadliest racetracks in Florida.
Fifty-eight horses died there in 2019. Last year, the death toll hit 55. The track logged another death on Jan. 15, when a 3-year-old gelding died after running his first race.
The track is the busiest in Florida, and the high number of horses leads to more deaths, said Aidan Butler, chief operating officer for Gulfstream’s parent company, Stronach Group.
“It’s a big busy track,” he said. “We run way more. The more you run, the more injuries you have. We race every week, three days a week.”
The deaths alarm Michele Lazarow, a Hallandale Beach commissioner and a champion of animal rights. She grilled Butler during a meeting this week. He promised that changes are on the way.
Butler spearheaded reforms at Stronach Group’s Santa Anita Park in California, where the death of 38 horses led to a national outcry in 2019.
The racing boss moved to Florida last month to bring new safety protocols to Gulfstream as well.
“We made the Santa Anita track one of the safest in the country in two years,” he told the city commission Wednesday. “We’re going to do the same at Gulfstream Park.”
The track has hired more veterinarians to oversee the horses and tightened up its medication rules, Butler told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
“If an animal is injured, you do not want them to be on pain meds to mask an injury,” he said. “We really expect it will make a stark difference. We need to make it as safe as possible.”
In a letter to the city, Butler said the rate of horse deaths per 1,000 starts at Stronach’s Florida tracks is below the 2019 national rate.
More than 1,800 horses race or train at Gulfstream Park and Gulfstream Park West daily, recording over 400,000 racing or training sessions over the course of the year, he said.
In the spotlight
Lazarow asked Gulfstream to post details on its website about the track’s riding crop protocols, medications, thoroughbred aftercare and veterinarian oversight — a request Butler quickly embraced.
A new website is already in the works and should be ready by summer, he said.
“The public has the right to know what we do with horses and how well we look after them,” Butler said.
Lazarow said she’s championing the issue to help put a spotlight on the dangers of horse racing.
“No one polices the industry,” she said. “In California, they have an oversight agency. We don’t have a horse racing board in Florida. I want to bring awareness. Horses do not decide they want to race. If you put a horse in the field, I don’t think it would run in circles like that. There’s a reason you have to whip a horse to run faster.”
Lazarow mentioned her concern about the horse deaths in a letter she drafted to Gulfstream on city letterhead. Her colleagues, however, made it clear this week that they do not support sending the letter on the behalf of the entire commission.
Mayor Joy Cooper argued the letter was extreme.
“Horses are meant to run,” she said. “Injuries can happen in any sport.”
‘Feet to the fire’
Lazarow now plans to send the letter to Gulfstream on her own official letterhead.
“I want to hold their feet to the fire,” she said. “The reason for this letter was not only to improve the conditions for the horses but also to bring about public awareness about what actually goes on at these tracks. Few people realize there are 113 dead horses. And now it’s 114.”
At least eight horses on average died at racetracks nationwide each week during the 2019 racing season, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
A federal bill aimed at nationwide reforms kicks in next year.
Horse racing has no national governing body to regulate the industry and sanction those who break and ignore industry rules. That has resulted in patchwork policies and penalties that differ state by state.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, a bill signed by then-President Donald Trump in December, will fix that by creating an independent authority to oversee drug testing and enforcement nationwide. The committee also will establish uniform racetrack safety protocols.
Butler says he is working on fixing problems even before the new law kicks in.
“The new bill will give us a chance to reshape the future of horse racing,” he said. “We’re at the forefront of improving the sport. We did a great job in California. I was asked by the company to come out east and do the same here.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan