LOS ANGELES -- Trainer Bob Baffert was standing on the front stretch at Santa Anita Park doing an interview for a local television station while horses worked out in the background.
Baffert was selling a "good story" about one of his top horses, Roadster, who will be running in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. He was trying to mitigate the public's reaction to 21 horses dying during either racing or training at Santa Anita since Dec. 26.
"They start interviewing me and I see this horse coming down the stretch," Baffert said. "She's tired and I'm thinking to myself, 'Pull that horse up' while I'm doing this interview."
But about the same time the horse crossed the finish line, she fell, and a horn sounded signaling an accident on the track.
"It was just awful. It was bad," Baffert said. "What can you say? There is nothing you can say."
Princess Lili B became the 22nd fatality on March 14, having broken both her front legs, all captured on television and replayed many times. On March 31, the third day the track reopened after being shut for racing for almost a month, Arms Runner became No. 23 when he went down on the dirt crossing of downhill turf course. That part of the track has since been shut down.
California racing is in crisis. The situation at Santa Anita has become a national rallying point for animal rights advocates. Other racing jurisdictions have proactively implemented horse safety rules to try to avoid the negative perception created by the deaths at Santa Anita.
California racing could be one general election away from extinction unless it can sell the public on the idea it is open to change.
"It is the biggest potential crisis that the industry has faced," said Chuck Winner, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. "This has been the biggest public and political blowback that we've faced. It's gotten so much attention from the media, which is not to say it shouldn't have. People who are not normally paying attention are paying attention."
Since the latest fatality more than a month ago, Santa Anita has had a safety record that is almost as statistically unusual as the number of deaths. There have been 5,723 timed workouts without a catastrophic injury and 848 horses have gone to post on race day without a life-ending injury. Thousands more have galloped or exercised over the main or training tracks.