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Judge Denies Group's Request to Protest Calif. Racehorse Deaths

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    Judge Denies Group's Request to Protest Calif. Racehorse Deaths
    Mario Tama/Getty Images (File)
    A starting gate stands outside the track on the final day of the winter/spring horse racing season at Santa Anita Park on June 23, 2019, in Arcadia, Calif.

    A group of animal-rights advocates upset about the deaths of dozens of steeds at Santa Anita Race Track lost a round in court Thursday when a judge denied their request to be allowed to protest in the parking lot, walkways and gate areas of the venue that do not require a ticket.

    In denying the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin said the venue has a legitimate reason in excluding protesters from those private-property areas for the safety of guests and to facilitate traffic. He said the track has provided an area outside gate 5, one of four public gates to the park, where people can gather to publicly express their views.

    A non-jury trial on the same issues will be held later, but the judge has yet to set a date. Matthew Strugar, an attorney for the plaintiffs, pointed out in his opening remarks that 32 horses have died at Santa Anita since December. He said his clients sought the preliminary injunction because they plan to be present during the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 1-2.

    "Horses are dying at the park and protesters want to protest at the park," Strugar said, adding that the day's decision could be a strong indication of how the judge will rule after the trial.

    Strugar maintained that the areas where his clients want to demonstrate is a public forum. He cited shopping malls and Union Station as examples of private property where the law allows people to protest.

    Attorney Emily Evitt -- who represents the Stronach Group, which owns several racetracks, including Santa Anita -- argued her clients have a "fundamental right to exclude" protesters from their property and said the group that demonstrated against the animal deaths on March 3 was "extremely disruptful" to traffic.

    According to the complaint filed May 30 against Stronach, eight of the plaintiffs attempted to demonstrate and pass out leaflets in the parking lot and public walkways outside of the track on March 3 but were prevented from doing so, and some of their members were battered and imprisoned by track security guards.

    A ninth plaintiff, Dina Kourda, contacted Santa Anita Park representatives to request information on how she could lawfully hand out leaflets promoting a plant-based diet but was denied any details from the park's community services office, the suit states.

    Along with injunctive relief, the suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

    Eight of the plaintiffs went to the park to protest the park's "business decision to place profits over the rights, dignity and welfare of horses," the suit states.

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    The protesters carried megaphones and posterboard signs with slogans that denounced the park. One person wore a body camera-type video-recording device, the suit states.

    Two groups of security guards blocked the plaintiffs as they tried to walk to the admissions area but did not try to prevent access to other members of the public, the suit states.

    A park employee who was not in uniform grabbed one plaintiff by one arm, removed her camera and threw it to the ground, and a guard then handcuffed her, the suit states.

    The same two employees ripped a sign from another plaintiff who also was handcuffed, the suit states. Three plaintiffs who tried to record what was happening to their two colleagues were blocked from doing so by guards using their hands and bodies, the suit states.

    Three plaintiffs were later cited by Arcadia police for allegedly trespassing, but no charges were filed, the suit states.