Seemingly healthy racehorses have been dropping dead at an alarming rate in California, perplexing researchers and attracting the attention of regulators. The three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert has had seven horses die suddenly in the last 16 months, necropsies revealed.
Mike Marten, a spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, said an investigator was assigned to help Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the state, and researchers from U.C. Davis review the deaths.
“The C.H.R.B. carefully monitors fatalities trends,” Arthur said Wednesday. “I don’t believe there is much that slips by our notice,” especially “clear anomalies either by surface, track, trainer or diagnosis or any combination thereof.”
In California, 19 horses died acutely in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2012. Four of them were trained by Baffert. During this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 17 have died suddenly, three of which were in Baffert’s care, including a 5-year-old mare who died last month while training in the morning at Hollywood Park.
“The main necropsy findings were the severe diffuse pulmonary edema and the multifocal pulmonary hemorrhage, which are indicative of acute severe respiratory distress, the cause of which remains undetermined,” the necropsy report said.
California has one of the most comprehensive post-mortem protocols in the country and has conducted necropsies on all the horses.
“We have not been able to find the cause,” Dr. Francisco Uzal of the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System said at a meeting of the board’s medication committee. “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.”
Thoroughbreds rarely die suddenly: a 2010 study in the Equine Veterinary Journal found that sudden death occurred in 9 percent of fatalities in California. Several trainers and owners said they could not remember losing a horse to a heart attack or an unexplained occurrence.
“I’ve had thousands of horses in my barn, and I’ve seen them die from colic or break bones or get an illness, but I don’t think there was but maybe one who just dropped dead,” said Gary Contessa, who has been training horses for 38 years, primarily in New York.
Last June, after the Baffert-trained C J Russell collapsed after finishing last in a race, the necropsy had the notation “4th horse to collapse/die for this trainer in less than one year.” The necropsy concluded that C J Russell died of “cardiovascular collapse.”
Cardiac failure or heart problems were noted in three other of the Baffert-trained horses, including a 2-year-old colt who died while galloping at Hollywood Park from “failure of the cardiac conduction system” on Nov. 4, 2011, according to the necropsy. The other two Baffert horses died of internal bleeding, according to the necropsies. One of them, a 3-year-old, had a “massive abdominal/thoracic cavity hemorrhage.”
The names of the horses and their owners were redacted by the California authorities.
Baffert did not respond to messages left by phone and e-mail.
Necropsies of two horses, including one under Baffert’s care, showed traces of rat poison, but not the kind used by California racetracks. Arthur said the causes of death of those two horses were determined to be from internal hemorrhage.
The inquiry into sudden deaths comes as horse racing is trying to reform a drug culture that its officials concede is diminishing the sport. Congressional hearings have been held and federal legislation proposed to take over the sport. A New York Times investigation last year showed how a pervasive drug culture put horses and riders at risk and found that 24 horses a week die at America’s racetracks, a rate greater than in countries where drug use is severely restricted.
Last month, the industry took a significant step toward adopting tough uniform rules when eight states agreed to operate their racetracks under one set of rules that will severely restrict the administration of medication.
The states across the mid-Atlantic region, including New York, winnowed to 24 what has long been an unruly list of medications allowed to treat illness and injury in racehorses. They have also stepped up efforts to detect so-called designer drugs and substances that improve performance, but do not have a drug test effective enough to catch cheats.
Uzal acknowledged that researchers had been stymied in their search for answers to the sudden deaths because of the lack of information from trainers and their veterinarians.
“The information of medication that we get is still sketchy,” Uzal said at the medication meeting. “But if we can have a summary of medication, that would help a lot.”