03/06/2019 20:05 EST

California Racetrack Suspends Races Indefinitely After 21 Horses' Deaths

It's not yet known what has caused the alarming number of injuries at Santa Anita racetrack over the last two months.

Racing has been canceled indefinitely at California’s Santa Anita racetrack after 21 horses had to be put down for injuries they mysteriously sustained during training and races over the last two months.

The decision, announced by the Los Angeles-area park on Tuesday, postpones two major races previously scheduled for this weekend, as well as training activities. It came the same day that a 4-year-old filly had to be euthanized for injuries to her leg.

“It’s undetermined when racing will return here,” Mike Willman, a spokesman with the park, told HuffPost on Wednesday.

The racetrack’s owner, The Stronach Group, said it has ordered additional testing of the one-mile main track. This follows extensive ground radar testing performed late last month by track soil expert Mick Peterson of the University of Kentucky’s equine programs, who deemed it “one hundred percent ready,” according to a press release at the time.

The Santa Anita racetrack has suspended races indefinitely after 21 horses suffered fatal injuries while either racing or training.

“The ground-penetrating radar verified all of the materials, silt, clay and sand, as well as moisture content, are consistent everywhere on this track,” Peterson said in a release on Feb. 27. “This testing ensures all components, the five-inch cushion, pad and base, are consistent and in good order.”

Asked why it took this long for races to be suspended, Willman noted the park’s previous two-day suspension for Peterson’s review. He added that it had three hall of famers work their top Kentucky Derby prospects on the track during that suspension without issue.

“There was absolutely nothing wrong with the track,” he said before adding that the two additional deaths since that inspection suggested otherwise.

“At that point, the numbers, it’s unacceptable, completely, totally unacceptable,” he said of the mounting injuries, which have all been fractures, some to the hind ankles, which are unusual. There are no other major similarities in terms of the horses’ age or gender, he said.

Horses race in the 2016 Breeders' Cup World Championships at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California.

To provide extra help, the track said it is bringing back its former superintendent Dennis Moore, who had worked full time from 2014 to the end of 2018. Moore will work as a consultant, Willman said.

“We expect that by Friday he’ll begin to get his head around what issues we may have here and then we’ll begin a course of action,” Willman said.

“This Saturday is one of the biggest days of the year so the economic concerns, they are not a concern,” Willman said, referencing the postponed San Felipe Stakes, which features 3-year-old Kentucky Derby hopefuls, and the Santa Anita Handicap, for horses 4 years old and up. “The safety of our athletes,” he added, “supersedes everything else.”

According to The Los Angeles Times, the number of injury-related deaths at the track since Dec. 26 is almost double the number sustained all of last year, which was considered one of the safest in nearly 25 years.

MARK RALSTON via Getty Images
Animal-rights advocates protest the deaths of racehorses at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California, on Sunday.

A few potential reasons for the injuries being eyed include the recent weather’s effect on the track and health issues with the horses.

The area has had unusual amounts of rain and the coldest February in nearly 60 years, prompting some suggestions that the weather may have affected the track and caused the injuries.

The park said 16 of the injuries occurred while either racing or training on the dirt track, while five died after racing on the turf.

“We think that [rain] could definitely contribute even though our experts are telling us not,” Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, told The Associated Press. “The tracks out here are built not for weather like that.”

There has also been concern about whether the injured horses had been previously injured and given legal drugs to minimize the effects before they took their fatal spills, according to the Times.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which had joined protesters outside the racetrack this week, applauded the park’s closure in a statement Tuesday. The group encouraged the California Horse Racing Board to outlaw such drugs and for authorities do a criminal investigation into those who may have put injured horses on the track, resulting in their deaths.