Del Mar Makes Changes To Turf Track After Horse Deaths
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. To be honest, we're not off to a good start. That is a quote from Matt McBride, the director of media for the Del Mar thoroughbred club. He was commenting on the alarming number of horses having to be euthanized because of injuries, and only the first two weeks of the racing season. Seven horses have had to be put down, eight in total have died, compared to the total of four in entire 2013 Del Mar racing season. Besides grief over the dead horses and injured jockeys, there is frustration among horse racing experts because, because the Del Mar track turf is now wider, more even, and supposedly safer than ever before. I would like to welcome my guest, Rick Baedeker, Executive Director of the California Horse Racing Board. Welcome to the program. RICK BAEDEKER: Thank you Maureen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is your reaction to the number of deaths at Del Mar this year? RICK BAEDEKER: First of all, it is no different I supposed been the reaction to any death, any time, during the course of the year. The people involved in the sport are really involved, and probably got involved because of their love of the racehorse. The magnificent racehorse. Anytime anything like this happens, it is tragic. When you have four in the course of opening week in a couple of days, you suspect maybe you just had four horses who were susceptible to injury. But when you have four, then you have to ask the question, is there an external cause here? Are these injuries occurring because of the condition of the racecourse? As you described, it is really in pristine shape because it is brand-new, but it is also different. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have you ever witnessed a race in which a was had to be put down? RICK BAEDEKER: Sure, I have been in the sport my entire life. Yes I have. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what is the reaction? That must put a pall over the entire experience for the rest of the day. RICK BAEDEKER: It certainly does. The reaction of the crowd is generally silence. That same emotion that I talked about, that is respect and appreciation for this beautiful animal also translates into an emotion of shock, and sadness, when this happens. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you describe for us how some of these injuries have happened so far this season? Are there any similarities in these accidents? RICK BAEDEKER: No, the only similarities would be that four of them have occurred on the turf course. We do have ways to determine that. The state of California, the California horse racing Board is an agency of the state of California. It is our job not to manage racing, but to regulate it. For instance, we do not necessarily decide which race will be run on a particular day, but we do have to make sure that management is keeping the racing surface, the turf or the main track safe. For an instance like this, we have to intervene and we work with track management. Almost always, track management will air on the side of caution, being forced to do so by the regulatory body. In this instance, they shut down racing for Sunday. They began a rejuvenation of the turf course and any golfer out there knows what it is like when the turf is punched in the fall. Holes are inserted into the surface, so moisture can penetrate, and it also loosens up the remaining soil. The new technology that they have at Del Mar actually penetrates 5.5 inches into the soil. I don't think they were intending to do that so soon, but as a matter of fact, because of the experience of the first nine days or ten days of racing, they decided to do it. They started it Saturday night and it is completed now. There is testing taking place as we speak. Our safety stewards have come down from Sacramento. They visit each racetrack before the start of the meet, and establish a baseline. They test the services using specialized tools for firmness, soil composition, all sorts of different things. Then they are able to come back and test again. That is what they are doing as we speak. The preliminary results following the verdicate process and following the rain that we got on Sunday, with more moisture into it, results so far are good. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about the new technology, we have heard a lot about the new turf track. What is new about it? RICK BAEDEKER: The big difference is that it is wider. The turf course at Del Mar was narrow, and as a result they generally ran no more than eight or nine horses in a race, for safety reasons. So, in order to get the Breeders' Cup, which they would have been awarded in 2017, they had to improve the turf course. They had other problems with the turf course as well. It is not an exact science. You're dealing with part of nature here, you're talking about wanting grass to grow faster than it wants to. Particularly Bermuda grass, which is dormant during the winter. It needs to come to life and stay alive. It is complicated, but the primary difference is that this is 100% Bermuda turf, designed for a coastal environment, and it is much wider. The other change is that the turns are banked more significantly, which makes it easier for a racehorse from a physics standpoint, to move around the turn. There is less pressure on the horse as he races around the far turns, those are the main differences. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We spoke with Matt McBride, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. He spoke to KPBS about the new turf, here is what he had to say: [AUDIO FILE PLAYING] MATT MCBRIDE: We believe we had a very good turf course installed. The response that we have had from our riders so far, if anybody knows anything about the turf course right now, it is our riders. Their response so far is universally good. If the turf courses the cause of the injuries and subsequent deaths of these horses, we would have an insurrection on our hands with the riders. There is not a rider in that room that has come to us to say that that of course is not safe, we don't want to ride on it. [ END AUDIO FILE ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is Matt McBride speaking about the turf course at the Del Mar racetrack. One question that arose from hearing that, if there is no problem with the track, why did Del Mar close it down for maintenance so early in the season? RICK BAEDEKER: Were part of the conversation with the jockeys, the CHRB, the state regulatory body, and our stewards participated in those conversations. Matt is right, the jockeys, particularly the veteran jockeys, they were saying that the horses, even though it is firm and times are fast, nonetheless the horses are bouncing along it. It is kind of propelling them a little bit, which is the desired situation. That is great, but as a matter of fact, there were four catastrophic injuries. As far as the CHRB is concerned, stop stop it and work on it. Do what you can. They have a brilliant guy over there, that is there year-round taking care of the one turf course. We trust their proposed maintenance program, and renovation program, which they have done. We applaud them it, and hopefully, in the early testing, it will indicate that the course is softer and will be safer. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about the physical condition of the horses? Who checks on the horses themselves to see if they are fit to run? RICK BAEDEKER: That is great question, some people will say this is not because of the course, this is because the condition of the horses. This is an anomaly and hopefully will not have another one during the course of the season. But it is a much broader effort taking place in California, and around the country, to dramatically reduce allowable medications. The only ones that are allowed now are therapeutic, never performance enhancing drugs, those would get you banned for a long time. Still, even further restricting those, that is one effort taking place here and elsewhere. The other thing is, we have state veterinarians and veterinarians that are employed by the racetrack. Horse that is running tomorrow, for instance, he will be examined first thing in the morning by a state veterinarian. If the state veterinarian has any doubt at that time that he is fit to run, he will take him out of the race. Then he is examined when he is brought over for the race when he is brought to the receiving barn. The same thing happens in the paddock when he is settled. The final test is the best test, when the rider is up, and the horse is warming up down the backstretch usually, if the jockey feels that the horse will be unsound, and we urge him as strongly as we can to take the horse to the veterinarian at the starting gate, and have the veterinarian examine him. Generally, when the jockey brings a horse to have the vet look at him, the vet will scratch that horse. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Looking beyond Del Mar for a moment, is horse racing overall getting safer? RICK BAEDEKER: It is getting safer, the percentage of these catastrophic injuries has dropped significantly. Let me say, it is not an easy position to be and to have respond to these tragic things. To say that we have had fewer of them, so what. One is too many, we get that, but all we can try to do is reduce that number as much as humanly possible. Improving racing surfaces is one reason, improvement in restrictions on medications and the way that these horses can be cared for is another thing. And then those steps I just described to you, that are experienced by resources everyday are another. We have another one that is very good at starting to make a good contribution, that is every time that one of these unfortunate injuries occurs, we send all information and every jurisdiction in the country since all of this information into a central database. We have been doing this now for about five years. We have enough information to start to draw conclusions. But you can example of one of the things that they have determined. Among horses that have suffered these injuries, there's a common denominator that says that if the horse has been off from races, and probably laid off from races because he sustained some kind of injury, and comes back, if he has been trained in serious workouts, for more than 25 furlongs, which would be 1/8 of a mile, he is more susceptible to injury. Here is the great thing about that. We can educate the trainer as to that fact, we can also put the horse on a watchlist for the veterinarians. He is coming over, he is in today, so give him a second. Look at all of the stages. There is a national effort underway. Our safety steward program is revolutionary in the country. We have six in California, we have one or two other states that have any at all. It is really making a difference. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some people have expressed reluctance to go to the races because of horse injuries and deaths, what you have to say to their concerns? RICK BAEDEKER: I would invite them to come to the racetrack during the morning during exercise. What you'll see, what is unmistakable, is that the race horse loves to run. He or she has been bred to run over all of these years. Mom did it, her mom did it, and as a matter of fact, it is the same thing that you see in a pastor in Kentucky when mare and foal take off across the pasture at a full gallop. You see that at the racetrack and out like I said, I have been in it forever. That's what attracted me to it initially and what keeps me currently motivated to fix what we can. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much.
Turf racing is expected to return to Del Mar on Wednesday, despite the unusually high number of horses euthanized in the first two weeks of the season. Seven horses have been put down this year, and one horse died from a heart attack before racing began.
Del Mar shifted two turf races on Sunday to the dirt and made other adjustments after the horses' deaths, including two deaths on Saturday.
Four of the deaths have occurred on the seaside track's new turf course, but Mac McBride, the director of media for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said racing officials don't believe the turf course is to blame.
"We believe we have a very good turf course installed," he said. "The response we've had from our riders so far, and if anybody knows anything about that turf course right now, it is our riders, their response on this is universally good. If turf course was the cause of injuries and subsequent deaths with these horses, we would have an insurrection on our hands with our riders. And there isn't a rider in that room that has come to us and said, you know what, that turf course is unsafe, we don't want to ride on it."
As a precaution, the track moved up scheduled maintenance on the turf course to Saturday night instead of the next night as had been planned. The turf also was aerated and watered starting on Sunday to "soften it just a tad," McBride said.
He told KPBS media partner 10News that "everybody here at the race track is feeling terrible" about the euthanized horses.
"It is absolutely the worst part of our game," McBride said.
He said 10 horses were euthanized in 2012 and four last season, compared to the seven horses put down in just two weeks so far this year.
"To be honest, we're not off to a good start," McBride said.
Lil Swiss Echo hurt her right foreleg in the stretch of the fifth race on Saturday, unseating apprentice jockey Drayden Van Dyke. He was taken to a hospital for an exam and later released. In the ninth race, J Kat was pulled up on the far turn by jockey Corey Nakatani with severe injuries to his left foreleg.
Blue Grass Stakes winner Dance With Fate was euthanized July 24 after the colt severely injured his leg in a training accident.
A veterinarian at the seaside track said Dance With Fate ruptured two of the three large patella ligaments in his right rear leg.
Dance With Fate was galloping when he bolted to the outside fence near the far turn, crashed into the fence and fell, dumping exercise rider Joe Durant, who was hospitalized with unknown injuries. Dance With Fate was taken by horse ambulance to trainer Peter Eurton's barn, where the colt was put down about 5 1/2 hours later.
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club said it was “deeply saddened by the loss of thoroughbred lives.”
Four of those losses have come on our new turf course. Despite that, we continue to have the utmost confidence in the course, as do our partners in this race meet — the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the California Thoroughbred Trainers, the Jockeys’ Guild and the California Horse Racing Board — all of whom have expressed that confidence to us today.
Nonetheless, as a precautionary measure, Del Mar will shift the two turf races scheduled for Sunday’s card off the course and run them instead on our main track. Additionally, we will move up scheduled maintenance on the turf course to Saturday evening instead of the Sunday evening schedule that had been planned. The entire course will be aerated and watered starting on Sunday. Track crews will work on it for the next three days and, in the end, reposition the inner rail at the 18-foot position.
Track officials feel that they are adjusting on the side of caution with these moves. They are meant to give all parties involved — riders, trainers, owners and fans — assurance that everything possible is being done to ensure the track’s first priority, which is safety of horses and riders. Those same officials feel strongly that when racing resumes on Wednesday, the turf course will perform in a positive fashion.