Horse racing has a problem: The horses keep dying. Last Friday, Cyclone Slew became the 58th racehorse in California to die in 2022. Notably, the 4-year-old thoroughbred was also the 13th horse to die at Berkeley racetrack Golden Gate Fields in 2022.
It’s hardly an anomaly. Last November, three horses died at Golden Gate Fields within a single week.
According to the California Horse Racing Board, Cyclone Slew died of “musculoskeletal issues.” That broad term could refer to anything from a horse-on-horse collision to chronic disease.
Advocates say horse racing needs better legislation that could keep horses safer like regulating track surfaces and banning Lasix, a drug used to get horses to rapidly shed water weight before a race, while others want to ban horse racing altogether.
Marty Irby, the executive director of Animal Wellness Action, an organization that advocates for animal welfare, is particularly concerned about the role performance-enhancing drugs play in racehorse fatalities.
“The number of deaths is out of the ordinary,” Irby told The Standard.
The sport is no stranger to controversy. In 2020, a national blood-doping scandal rocked the horse racing world, leading to the indictment of 27 people and the passing of the national Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act in 2021.
California has taken additional steps to regulate horse racing in the last few years. Gov. Gavin Newsom instituted a policy of not appointing members to the California Horse Racing Board who own horses themselves.
Board spokesperson Mike Martin told The Standard that the board has passed around 50 regulations to improve equine health, including mandatory examinations and greater scrutiny of horses returning to the track after extended time off.
This, Martin said, has resulted in a clear downward trend in the number of deaths. Six years ago, 206 racehorses died in California. In 2020, that number was 72.
“It’s still far from ideal,” he said.
The Board has never taken a firm stance against Lasix, a diuretic that can induce some horses to expel as much as 30 to 40 pounds of urine before a race, according to Irby. Afterward, horses are then “jugged,” or injected intravenously with water, to rehydrate them.
Irby, who was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II herself for his efforts to protect horses, says this practice can cause bone deterioration. Others, including Martin, dispute this alleged side effect.
Cyclone Slew’s final race took place over the holiday weekend at Golden Gate Fields. She finished in sixth place.