Del Mar's Horse Racing Season Begins In The Shadow Of Santa Anita Deaths
The scene during a March race at Los Angeles' Santa Anita Park was gruesome, a horse crumpling to the ground with a broken leg as others thundered by. That thoroughbred, which was later euthanized, was among 30 that died after racing or training this year at Santa Anita.
With the racing season set to begin Wednesday at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club officials are hoping what happened at Santa Anita doesn't keep people away from their track.
"I think we’ve been very busy in the last month trying to tell everybody that we’re not Santa Anita," said Del Mar Thoroughbred CEO Joe Harper.
Harper said this year’s rainy winter is likely what contributed to the number of deaths at Santa Anita.
"It was probably one of the wettest winters Santa Anita has ever had — that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t race on a wet track," Harper said. "But there is a point where the track can get oversaturated."
Del Mar has had its share of problems in the past. In 2016, 23 horses died after training or racing on the track, according to the California Horse Racing Board, making it one of the deadliest years ever. Harper said it is still not clear why so many horses died that year, but the condition of the track likely played a role.
"We had to take a hard look at the track," Harper said. "Rebanked the turns a little higher — we kind of — it’s like picking up a carpet and fluffing it and putting it back down. Got rid of the inconsistencies in the track and it was much better."
This led to far fewer deaths over the next two years. In 2017, 12 horses died after training or racing at the track. In 2018, nine were lost.
Harper said keeping a track safe is a science — "a kind of dirt science. I mean this thing out there looks like a bunch of dirt — but it’s alive," he said.
In the off-season the track, made up of dirt and sand, is compressed and sealed — then tractors rehab the dirt. You want to have the right amount of padding so the track is not too hard, Harper said. Without that cushion, accidents and injuries can happen.
After each injury at Del Mar, horses are examined by a veterinarian and a decision is made as to whether or not the horse can be saved, Harper said. "If it’s a bad break usually the most humane thing to do is euthanize the horse," he said.
After the recent deaths at Santa Anita, state racing officials will now require a pre-race evaluation of Del Mar horses. California Horse Racing Board veterinarians will have the power to stop a horse from running. Veterinarians will be watching morning workouts and have the authority to remove horses from the track examinations.
There are also reforms regarding the medications given to horses, which animal rights groups say are used to mask painful injuries. Anti-inflammatory drugs were previously allowed up to 24 hours before a race, now that is changing to 48 hours before either a race or a workout.
Still, some think horses shouldn’t be racing at all.
"What happened out at Santa Anita is not unusual," said animal rights activist Ellen Ericksen, who regularly protests the Del Mar races. "This happens every year at every racetrack including Del Mar — horses are dying there for pure entertainment of humans."
Ericksen said tracks can implement all the safety measures they want, if horses are still running they will die. "There is no middle ground — reform doesn’t work," she said. "They’ve been trying it for years."
Ericksen wants people to be more aware of the deaths and is hoping lawmakers will take notice too.
"I think legislation has to happen," Ericksen said. "I think our lawmakers need to be aware of what happens at these racetracks. One dead horse is too many at any racetrack ever."
The Santa Anita deaths did get the attention of lawmakers. New legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom stipulates racing may be suspended anytime to protect the safety of horses.
Meanwhile, Harper insists that the safety of the horses is a top priority. "There’s no cruelty to animals going on here and we just want to make sure we’re doing everything so we know that horse is healthy enough to be out here," he said.
To put the 9 deaths in 2018 in perspective, track officials said horses raced or trained on the Del Mar track an estimated 75,000 times during the year. Harper said getting to zero deaths is a long shot.
"That zero is probably a difficult number — but it’s one we’re all striving for," he said.
The thoroughbred club said there are two types of people who generally attend the races.
"We have the hardcore racetrack guy who comes out to bet just to look at the horses then we have everyone else that comes out to wear hats and go to the concerts and do all the fun things — like wine tasting and chili cook-offs," Harper said.
It is that casual patron the racetrack is afraid of losing.
"We kind of expected some kind of a negative impact from Santa Anita," Harper said. "Our sales are down slightly — seats and stuff some areas are up — it was less than I thought."
Harper said he hopes people will see that Del Mar is doing what they can to prioritize horse safety.
"I have some good friends who just say, "You know I don’t know makes me nervous to watch a race.' Sometimes it makes me nervous to watch a race too — I want to get over that," Harper said. "I want to make sure we’ve done everything so these horses are out here, we all feel comfortable and hey they’re good."