ARCADIA, Calif. — A “Your Bet Funds Death” sign was the image Santa Anita Park bettors saw as they drove into the race track on Saturday.
Demonstrators arrived at 11 a.m. when the gates opened. Some carried posters splattered with phrases like “Horses Die Here” and “Death Track” to their usual weekly spot at the park’s entrance to protest what happens inside.
The 29 horse deaths at Santa Anita Park since December have drawn national news, and after two more horses died at the race track the weekend of June 8, California Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Horse Racing Board asked that Santa Anita cancel the rest of its season.
The Stronach Group, which owns the park, issued a joint statement on June 9 with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers in response, saying that it has been actively working to improve racing and that Santa Anita will remain open until the end of the season on June 23.
According to the state horse racing board, this season’s 29 deaths are down from a year ago, when 37 racing and training deaths occurred at Santa Anita in 2018, and 54 in 2017.
“Horses die due to horse racing,” said Zafir Molina, an animal rights advocate. “It’s not like it’s something new. It’s something that’s been happening for years, just no one knew about it.”
That’s why she, the 31 other protesters outside the park Saturday, and other animal rights activists have demanded for months that Santa Anita and every other horse racing track in the country close their gates.
They have met with the California Horse Racing Board as well as Frank Stronach, founder of the Stronach Group, to advocate for the abolishment of the horse racing industry.
“This is going on at every track across the country,” said Kiersten Cluster, co-founder of the Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles, a group that advocates for elephants held at the Los Angeles Zoo. “This is business as usual.”
Cluster, wearing a baby pink shirt with the words “Mercy for Animals” on the back said she has been a part of the Santa Anita protests since January.
She and Heather Wilson, one of the group’s leaders and an organizer for Horseracing Wrongs, took turns marching back and forth behind the protesters, leading military cadence chants.
“California, what do ya know?” Wilson roared into a black bullhorn covered with stickers. The group echoed the phrase back to her.
“Racing sucks, it’s gotta go!”
Next to Wilson, Andrew Lesser gripped a “No such thing as Humane Racing” sign in one hand and a “We Are Not PETA” sign in the other.
“We’ve been accused of being paid [by PETA] to demonstrate,” Lesser said. “So we’re saying we’re not PETA because we’re all volunteers.”
Lesser said he grew up in a horse racing family, and he could still remember weekend visits to the race track as a young boy.
He’d been out of the horse racing industry for 50 years and said he was disturbed by what he saw in the news about the string of deaths at Santa Anita Park, so he decided to go to a protest.
That was on March 3, Lesser said, and he has returned with Wilson every weekend since.
As Lesser waved his signs back and forth, a man in a white truck sped by the protesters and yelled “F- - - you! Motherf- - - - - !” before turning into the park.
“That’s what you get when you challenge someone who’s addicted to something and you take away their addiction,” Lesser said.
He added that drivers often speed up when they get close to the group, or they swerve close to the curb where the protesters stand, honking their horns and screaming out of their windows.
That never deters Stephanie Muchard from shouting “Shame on you!” while wagging a finger at drivers as they enter the race track.
Muchard is a representative of PETA and the Humane Society of the United States. She said she’s an avid proponent for the abolishment of the entire horse racing industry.
“It’s not a sport,” Muchard said. “It’s legalized murdering of animals and it’s not entertaining at all. It’s very cruel.”
As 1 p.m. drew near and Saturday’s races were ready to start, Wilson gathered her troops for a few final words before they dispersed.
“We’re the broadcasting network of the people,” she said before reminding everyone that they’d be out there again with their bullhorns, posters and chants for the final week of racing.
“There is carnage going on at this race track,” she said. “And they don’t want it being reported.”
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