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It's a new season at the Santa Anita Racetrack outside Los Angeles, but one troubling aspect has not changed. Horses keep dying. One died over the weekend, bringing the total to 34 since December. That's despite warnings from California Governor Gavin Newsom that he will shut down horse racing in the state if the industry doesn't clean up its act, and it's despite a criminal investigation from the L.A. district attorney's office. Ben Bergman has more.
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BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: Looking out across the track to the palm trees and the mountains in the distance, it's hard to imagine a more picturesque setting for horse racing.
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BERGMAN: On a recent 87 degree fall day, 2-year-old fillies - those are young females - competed for a $50,000 purse.
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BERGMAN: There were less than 5,000 fans in the stands. Attendance is down this season. On Saturday a 3-year-old gelding broke his front left ankle and was euthanized. Last month a colt broke both front ankles and had to be put down a month after testing positive for an illegally high dose of painkillers.
KATHY GUILLERMO: I'm angry.
BERGMAN: Kathy Guillermo is senior vice president of PETA.
GUILLERMO: I'm angry because we asked the Los Angeles district attorney to launch an investigation seven months ago, but we still have no results from those investigations.
BERGMAN: The DA's office wouldn't comment. Guillermo says it's unacceptable that racing continues.
GUILLERMO: I think we need to suspend racing until we have solid answers. I just don't think a sport is worth the lives of these animals.
BERGMAN: So why not halt competition?
ALEXIS PODESTA: I mean, I think that's a good question.
BERGMAN: Alexis Podesta oversees the California Horse Racing Board, which regulates the industry.
PODESTA: I would respond to it by saying that this is a big industry. There are a lot of jobs and livelihoods involved in it. I would want us to be very cautious about ending an industry and killing a number of jobs without all of the facts.
BERGMAN: Podesta says racing has become much safer in California because of new rules like increased drug testing and exams. Thanks to a new state law, the board now also has the power to suspend races. Last season it tried to do that at Santa Anita but didn't have the authority to do so. Podesta says there's also this.
PODESTA: Over the last decade we've seen a fairly dramatic decline in the number of horse fatalities during racing.
BERGMAN: This will surprise a lot of people. Despite all the attention, according to the racing board, during the last fiscal year, there were actually slightly fewer deaths than normal at Santa Anita, and statewide, there were 144 fatalities. That's by far the lowest in the past decade. The board's chief veterinarian Dr. Rick Arthur says most people haven't thought about how dangerous the sport is until recently.
RICK ARTHUR: I think historically, horse racing has kind of lived in a bubble, and I think the anger of the public about these fatalities has made people wake up.
BERGMAN: Earlier this year the embattled Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, appointed Dr. Dionne Benson at its first chief veterinary officer. She says any number of deaths is unacceptable.
DIONNE BENSON: Our goal and our true finish line is to have zero fatalities. Whether we ever reach that is a different story, but we have to keep moving in that direction.
BERGMAN: Next month one of horse racing's biggest events, the Breeders' Cup, will be held at Santa Anita. Organizers had considered moving the race, but they decided not to because they said the track enacted effective and meaningful changes.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.