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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Del Mar's Horse Racing Season Begins In The Shadow Of Santa Anita Deaths

 July 17, 2019 at 10:20 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 After 30 horses died at Santa Anita Park earlier this year, there are concerns about how safe the track will be at del Mar this season. KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman says on this hope opening day at del Mar, officials are confident. Recent improvements will result in fewer horse deaths. Speaker 2: 00:18 The scene during a march race at Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles was gruesome. A horse going down with a broken leg as others. Thundered by that horse, which was later euthanized was one of 30 horses that died after racing or training at Santa Anita del Mar. Thoroughbred club officials are hoping that doesn't keep people away from their track. Oh, I think that we've been very busy in the last month trying to tell everybody that we're not Santa Anita. Joe Harper is CEO of the del Mar thoroughbred clubs. There's a quarter of a mile to go. He says, a rainy winter is likely what contributed to the number of deaths at Santa Anita. There is a point there where the track and get over soup saturated, and you, when you see it, make it harder, uh, and then have horses run on it. You're, you're probably asking for trouble. Del Mar has had its share of problems in the past. Speaker 2: 01:05 In 20 1623 horses died after training or racing in del Mar making it one of the deadliest years ever. We had to take a hard look at the track. Harper says, it's not clear why so many horses died then, but one thing they did do was redo the dirt track. Re Bank the turns a little higher. We Kinda, it's like picking up a carpet and fluffing it and putting it back down. This led to far fewer deaths in 20 1712 horses died after training or racing in del Mar and nine were lost in 2018 Harpur says keeping a track safe is a science kind of dirt science. I mean this thing out there, it looks like it just a bunch of dirt, but it's alive. During the off season, the track made up of dirt and sand is compressed and sealed. Then tractors begin the work of rehabbing the dirt, Speaker 3: 01:51 right? Speaker 2: 01:51 [inaudible] says you want to have the right amount of padding so that the track isn't too hard without that cushion accidents. And injuries can happen. And after each injury at del Mar, horses are evaluated and, and examined by a veterinarian. So then a decision is made as to whether or not the horse can be saved. Uh, if it's a bad break, usually the most humane thing is to euthanize Speaker 3: 02:12 yours. Speaker 2: 02:15 During the recent deaths at Santa Anita state racing officials will now require a pre-race evaluation of del Mar horses. State veterinarians will have the power to stop a horse from running. Still something courses shouldn't be racing at all. Speaker 4: 02:27 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 the humans. Speaker 2: 02:40 Ellen Erickson regularly protests the races in del Mar. Speaker 4: 02:43 We are fighting to ban horseracing. Speaker 2: 02:45 She says tracks can implement all the safety measures they want. If horses are still running, they will die. Speaker 4: 02:50 There's no middle ground reform doesn't work. They've been trying to for years. Speaker 2: 02:55 Erickson wants people to be more aware of the deaths and is hoping lawmakers will take notice. I think, um, legislation has to happen. One Dead Horse is too many at any racetrack ever. The Santa and Nita deaths did get the attention of lawmakers. New legislation signed by Governor Gavin Newsome says racing may be suspended at any time to protect the safety of horses. Harper insists that the safety of horses is a top priority. Speaker 5: 03:18 There is no cruelty to animals going on here, you know, and uh, we just want to make sure that we're doing everything. So we know that that horse is healthy enough to be out here. Speaker 2: 03:30 Jack officials say that the nine deaths in 2018 came as horses raced or trained on the del Mar track, an estimated 75,000 times. Harper says getting to zero deaths is a long shot. Speaker 5: 03:40 That zero is probably a difficult number, but it's when we're all striving for Speaker 2: 03:44 del Mar says in general, there are two types of people that attendance races. Speaker 5: 03:47 We have the hardcore racetrack guy who comes out just to bat, look at the horses and then we have everybody else that comes out to wear hats and, and have a party. Speaker 2: 03:56 And it's that casual patrion that the race track is afraid of losing. Speaker 5: 03:59 We kind of expected some kind of negative impact from Santa Anita. Our, our sales are down slightly, um, seats and stuff. Some are up, some areas are up. Um, that, uh, it was less than I thought. Speaker 2: 04:13 [inaudible] says he hopes people will see that del Mar is doing what they can to prioritize horse safety. Speaker 5: 04:18 Uh, I have some good friends who say, I just, you know, makes me nervous to watch your race. You know, sometimes it makes me nervous to watch the race too. I want to get over that. I want to make sure we've done everything. So these horses are out here, you know, we all feel comfortable. Hey, they're good. Speaker 2: 04:33 Sure. And Amy is KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman. Matt, welcome. Hi Maureen. Now those 30 horses that died during Santa Nita racing season really shook people up. Is that a record for California tracks? No, actually it's not a record. And even just in the last couple of years, there's been much more deadlier seasons. Even at Santa Anita. I mean, if you look back within the two years, we're talking 37 deaths, 54 deaths. So there's been a lot more deaths and then you kind of wonder, well, why all this outrage now, why all these protests while this national news, when you talk to people in the racing industry, they just say that there's just a new awareness of, of these deaths. But it's unclear why, you know, this year at Santa Anita, uh, there was this, this massive outrage. Um, some people say it's because that the deaths were very close together, but other seasons have been much deadlier. Speaker 2: 05:22 Well now, besides redoing the track, has del Mar made any other changes as a result of the terrible season at Santa Anita? Yes. So this year they have made a couple changes as well as a going back a few years, but so this year Delmar's implementing a veterinarian's during their morning workouts that are going to be monitoring the horses to see if they appear to be injured. And if they do think that one's injured, they can pull them off the track for further evaluation, kind of check them out. Um, they've also created a stakeholder advisory committee, which is made up of trainers, jockeys, veterinarians that are gonna constantly monitor what's going on during the season. So like if had a rash of deaths at the beginning, they could say, okay, what do we, what are we doing here within the last couple of years? Um, they've made some changes including reducing the number of racing dates, uh, limiting the number of horses that they have. Speaker 2: 06:09 Stabled their, uh, they have about, they had about 2000, now they have about 1800 and after 23 deaths in 2016, they changed their track. I mean, we talked about this in the story of they brought in some new people to maintain the track and they, obviously we did that. There's also some new state regulations, right? Yeah. So after Santa Anita, it really did catch the attention of lawmakers. The big one that's happening at del Mar this year, and that happened at the tail end of Santa Anita season, uh, is this entry review panel. Um, this is made up of state veterinarians and state racing officials. They're basically gonna look at every single horse before it races. Um, and the horses have to already be entered into the race. So it's not like somebody can just pull them out. Um, and, uh, basically, uh, it's an independent body that's going to be doing this. Speaker 2: 06:52 They're not necessarily going to be physically looking at every single horse, uh, but they're going to be reviewing like their past races, uh, their medication history. And if they want, they can go down and they can actually inspect a horse. Uh, but they're going to be looking for things like, oh, you know, if this horse hasn't run in nine months and he's all of a sudden running, or he's taken a lot of medications in the past couple of weeks, um, then they can actually go down and say, we want to check out this horse. And during the last two weekends at Santa Anita, they, they pulled over 30 horses from racist. So we'll see if that happens in Delmore. Now it's not just for love of the horses that del Mar is doing this, making these changes. It's also a pretty big business for the therapeutic. Yeah, it's a very big business and it's a big business for the state because the thoroughbred club has a contract with the state where they say they give after they pay all their people, they pay all their vendors. Speaker 2: 07:39 Uh, that money goes back to the state, which has then dumped back into the state owned fairgrounds. Um, it's probably one of the largest income generators if not the largest income generator at the fairground. But del Mar says that they are not a non for profit but there are not for profit, meaning that they try to dump all their money back in. But yeah, it is a very big money making business for them at the fairgrounds. And they were apparently worried that concern for horse safety could keep some people away this year. Did the CEO tell you how much sales are down? Uh, he didn't specifically say how much sales are down, you know, in the store. He kind of said, you know, sales are down a little bit, but then they're up in some areas. He didn't elaborate on that. But what I thought was interesting as he did say that they were expecting much more of an impact from Santa Anita and they really haven't, uh, seen that large impact yet. Speaker 2: 08:24 It's also worth noting too, when we talk about them making money, Santa Anita track is not a state owned fair rounds. I mean, it's a privately on track. It's a private business. Um, so you can kind of gather from that that they're trying to make more money and whereas the Damar thoroughbred club, they're on a state owned track, they don't own the track. Uh, they just sort of use the track for part of the year. Now I want to ask you about a related matter. Uh, there's a bill in Congress that would regulate what medicines and drugs are given to horses before racing. The allegation has that injured horses are doped up so that they can run, even though it's making their injuries worse. Supporters of the bill say this doping is also a reason that horses die on the track. Is Del Mar addressing this issue in any way? Speaker 2: 09:09 Yeah, so actually this year they have a rule change. Um, at these anti-inflammatory drugs, they were previously allowed up to 24 hours before a race and that's now changing to 48 hours. So they've doubled that time window. Now from a day to two days, animal rights groups say that these medications are used to mask injuries when horses should not be racing. Um, and the CEO of the del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Joel Harper says if one good thing has come out of Santa Anita, it's kind of brought more awareness to not only the safety measures but to this, um, medication, uh, these anti-inflammatories. Because from what he tells me, it's different from track to track. I mean, when you go to one track, it's these regulations. You go to this track, it's a different regulation. There's no kind of uniform a level. One other thing you talk about, that entry review panel was established at the direction of governor Gavin Newsome. Speaker 2: 09:54 He also signed a state law saying that, uh, the California horse racing board has the authority to stop racing at any time if they feel that horses are in danger. And so the Delmar race track opens for the first day today. It's their new season. When does the racing season and this here? Yeah, so there's actually a lot of people, I'm kind of, I don't know if they're super aware this, but there's two racing seasons. So there's the summer meeting in the fall, meet the summer meet runs through September 2nd and the fall meet runs from early November to the beginning of December. I've been speaking with KPBS reporter, Matt Hoffman. Matt, thanks. Thanks, Maureen.

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The summer racing season kicks off Wednesday in Del Mar after 30 horses died earlier this year at Los Angeles' Santa Anita Park track.
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