Horse Deaths Are Down At Del Mar This Summer, But So Is Attendance
Officials say safety measures implemented this summer have made the Del Mar racetrack safer than it's ever been. But the dozens of horse deaths earlier in the year at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles are still hurting attendance.
"I knew we were going to impacted obviously by the bad publicity," said Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper. "No one wants to come out and think they’re going to see a horse being killed or something."
So far, four horses have died during the summer season, which ends on Labor Day. Last year nine horses died during the summer and fall seasons combined, and 23 died as recently as 2016. Yet, despite the significant reduction in deaths, attendance at the track is down about 8% and betting is down by as much as 15%, Harper said.
Another impact from the 30 horse deaths at Santa Anita during its most recent six-month season is there are fewer horses available.
"When Santa Anita had so much trouble many of those horses — over a couple hundred maybe 300 went somewhere else — mainly back east," Harper said. "They didn’t just turn around and come back when we started."
Fewer horses means fewer races.
"Normally we’d run eight to nine races a day and we’re running seven on Wednesdays and Thursdays and trying to bring it up on the weekend," Harper said.
That means less people betting at the track.
"Our purse account is overdrawn -- we are paying out purses more than we’re generating in handle," said Del Mar Thoroughbred Club President Josh Rubinstein, using industry terms for the money paid to owners of winning horses and generated at the betting windows.
The track is hoping a strong showing in 2020 will be able to cover losses from this year.
Industry insiders acknowledge that revenue has been trending down at tracks everywhere in recent years and say improved horse safety is key to their long-term survival.
"I would say yes that the industry is on the decline," said Rick Baedeker, CEO of the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). "But the game is healthy — but it’s only going to stay healthy if ... the public is convinced that everything is being done that can be done to protect the race horse."
The new safety measures include examinations of all horses by state employed veterinarians before they race. Also, the CHRB has been given the power to stop racing at anytime and are implementing new rules like no more whips during races.
"We have a panel of experts, veterinarians and our safety stewards who scrutinize every entry everyday and they have prohibited horses from running," Baedeker said.
Through August 18, the state said more than 648 horses were evaluated before racing at Del Mar and 20 were pulled from the competition.
"Our view is simple — continue to reform the sport until it’s absolutely the safest it can be," Baedeker said.
But Animal rights activists like Ellen Ericksen say any horse death is unacceptable.
"There is no middle ground — reform doesn’t work," Ericksen said. "They’ve been trying it for years. What happened out at Santa Anita is not unusual. This happens every year at every racetrack including Del Mar. Horses are dying there for pure entertainment of humans."
Harper said the industry is embracing change.
"I see a lot of the old time guys saying, 'I guess it’s not business as usual — I'm glad I probably shouldn’t have brought that horse down so I’m not going to run him,'" Harper said. "Little things like that that tell me they’re getting it. That they know this business has to change."