Trouble at Turf Paradise: Animal welfare advocates raise concerns over high horse death rates

Animal welfare advocates are raising concerns about conditions at north Phoenix's Turf Paradise, as two dozen horses have died at the track so far since the start of meet in November 2021.

The General Manager at Turf Paradise, Vincent Francia, says 11 horses died during racing, eight died in training, and five died in the barn area. Right now, Turf Paradise is about halfway through its 124-day race meet, and the death rate for race horses at the track is double the national average.

"During that time, during those 68 days, we have raced 4,238 horses. 11 of those horses suffered a fatality during racing, so what those numbers tell is you that over 99% of those horses made it around the track safely," said Francia.

Animal welfare advocates , however, say it is not safe.

Maggi Moss has raced horses for 20 years, but says she won't race her horses at Turf Paradise because it has a bad reputation.

"More horses die on this race track than any other track," said Moss. "When that happens, it should alert people that horses are in danger of racing here because of the track condition, because of a lack of supervision of drugs being used, a lack of checking horses before the race. There’s good people at Turf Paradise, but it is in dire need of overhaul to protect the horses."

Moss says one horse, named 'Creative Plan,' was cleared to race at Turf Paradise in January, although it had existing issues. A California veterinarian that treated Creative Plan for a short time says it was flagged several times in multiple states, and should have been scrapped.

The horse was sold, and had to be euthanized.

Turf Paradise officials say two state vets and a track vet examine all horses before the race and, necropsies are done on fallen horses.

"One of the things that keeps popping up is the horse had a pre-existing condition," said Francia. "What that means is the horse had something where the horse is not 100%. It was not spotted by the trainers, it was not spotted by the veterinarians."

Meanwhile, officials with the Arizona Department of Gaming, which oversees Turf Paradise, have issued a statement that reads:

"The health and safety of athletes — both equine and human — is our highest concern. The Arizona Racing Commission and Arizona Department of Gaming - Division of Racing (Division) has taken and continues to take action by working with principal stakeholders in the horse racing industry to address equine safety issues on an ongoing basis. This includes conducting pre-race exams for all horses entered on race day (except those who are scratched for non-veterinary reasons), increased horse testing, performing necropsies on all equine fatalities at Arizona racetracks, and regular meetings with principal stakeholders to review findings and explore new processes or procedures to improve equine safety. By March 1, 2022, The Division will be implementing the required submission of medical records for every horse entered at Turf Paradise, which will allow veterinarians to review medicals to readily identify horses who may be at risk for injuries based on the equines overall health status. Additionally, the Division has collaborated with Turf Paradise ownership and Arizona Horsemen to help mitigate horse fatalities. This includes working with Turf Paradise to purchase new tractors, lawnmowers, harrows, and water trucks to maintain the track surfaces. The track completes daily maintenance reports and has contracted an expert track surface consultant who inspects and recommends track maintenance needs such as adding sand, silt, organics or water to enhance the surface. Since the start of the Turf Paradise race meet in November, there have been eleven thoroughbred racing fatalities of approximately 3700 race starts. It is difficult to nail down one overarching cause for horse injuries. Multiple factors may contribute to this, which include, but are not limited to, track surface composition, horse soundness, rate of racing starts, and recent horse performance."

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