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Del Mar Opening Day Attracts Racing Enthusiasts And Protesters

People arrive for Opening Day at the Del Mar Fair Grounds as demonstrators pr...

Photo by Lynn Walsh

Above: People arrive for Opening Day at the Del Mar Fair Grounds as demonstrators protest the deaths of horses during the race season, July 17, 2019.

Around thirty protesters greeted spectators almost immediately as they walked into Del Mar Opening Day Wednesday.

The protesters were holding signs and passing out fliers. Ellen Ericksen, a local animal activist, organized the group. She said she’s been protesting horse racing for years and her goal is to end horse racing.

Listen to this story by Lynn Walsh

“It’s archaic, it’s cruel, it’s outdated,” Ericksen said. “There are other forms of entertainment and if people want to gamble they can go to the casino.”

Last year nine horses died while racing at Del Mar. A decrease from previous years, where the track saw 12 horses die in 2017 and 23 in 2016. At the track in Santa Anita, east of Los Angeles, 30 horses died this year.

Ericksen says she’s protesting to make sure people know about these deaths and what the horses being raced are put through.

“We’re out here for the horses,” she said. “Someone has to tell the truth about what really goes on at race tracks.”

Del Mar Thoroughbred CEO Joe Harper said they have been working hard to make sure what happened at Santa Anita does not happen in San Diego.

They made improvements to the track, including rebanking turns and rehabbing the dirt. The goal Harper says is to have the right amount of padding so the track is not too hard. Without that cushion, accidents and injuries can happen.

"There’s no cruelty to animals going on here,” Harper said. “We just want to make sure we’re doing everything so we know that horse is healthy enough to be out here."

Reported by Roland Lizarondo

RELATED: Del Mar’s Horse Racing Season Begins In The Shadow Of Santa Anita Deaths

Ericksen said she plans to protest throughout the racing season this summer and in the fall. She has also organized two protests at the track this weekend.

Spectators told KPBS News they come for the atmosphere and excitement Opening Day brings and many of them said they could do without the protesters.

“In my opinion, they don’t need to be here,” Lori Shelton said. “The horse industry is doing everything it can. These horses are very valuable to them and they will do everything they can to save the horses.”

David Riz, who has been coming to Opening Day for years, said he didn’t like the protesters being outside the gate.

“I wish they’d put their politics outside an event like this,” he said. “It kind of belittles it a bit and I would rather have it somewhere else.”

Despite the controversy, Del Mar Media Director Mac McBride said the 2019 Opening Day had a sellout crowd and he’s expecting the total number of visitors to be more than 30,000. Despite the thousands of visitors, Harper said sales were down slightly this year compared to previous years.

This season the racing goes through September 2, 2019, with the concert series beginning Friday, July 19.

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