It was the second time in eight days that the historic track, a few kilometres east of Pasadena, California, was shut down.
The closure forced the postponement of the track’s signature race, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the San Felipe Handicap, a major race for three-year-olds trying to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Ever since the Kentucky Derby in 2008, when the filly Eight Belles had to be euthanised after finishing second, racing officials have worried that another high-profile breakdown could put the sport out of business.
“Quite frankly, we are no longer at a place or time where these incidents can withstand the status quo,” said Jim Gagliano, the president and chief operating officer of the Jockey Club.
“The health and safety of the horse and rider is of the utmost importance, and the entire racing industry has to redouble our efforts to prevent these tragedies.”
In 2017, for example, there were 1.61 deaths per 1000 starts in the US compared with two deaths per 1000 in 2009. In California, horse deaths have decreased by 60 per cent over the last 13 years.
So why have 21 horses died in such a short time?
Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California agency, pointed to a number of factors: heavy rains, a depleted horse population and impatience on the part of trainers and racetrack officials to get the most out of limited stock.
The track was closed on February 26-27 after the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner, Battle Of Midway, was fatally injured during a workout.
A track safety expert from the University of Kentucky, Mick Peterson, was brought in to search for possible irregularities that might explain the spike in fatalities. He did not find any.
Shortly after the course was reopened, however, the filly Eskenforadrink became the 20th fatality, breaking down in a race.
Santa Anita officials also have to deal with a mounting public relations problem. Animal welfare activists have protested outside the gates, and PETA has called on Governor Gavin Newsom to close the track and asked the Los Angeles County district attorney to open an investigation into the use of drugs that mask injuries.