DEL MAR — Although half of the deaths in the first nine days of racing at the Del Mar Racetrack have occurred on the newly installed turf course — replaced this year primarily for the safety of the riders and horses — officials maintain the track is not to blame.
“The turf course is good,” C.P. “Mac” McBride, director of media relations for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said. “It’s not the cause of horses breaking down.
“We have been caught here in very, very unfortunate circumstances,” he added. “Knowledgeable people understand this. There’s a thought that Del Mar is a terrible place, and we’re killing all the horses. That’s not true.”
From July 17, when the current race season started, through July 27 eight horses have been put down. Four injuries occurred during races on the new $5 million turf course and one was on the Polytrack.
The remaining three were not race related. For example, one horse suffered a heart attack.
McBride said none of the riders sustained any great injuries, and overall they have had no complaints with the new track.
“Generally speaking — and maybe there are one or two contrarians — the riders are fine with the turf,” he said.
Following two deaths on the grass course July 26, all races the following day were run on the main synthetic track and no injuries occurred.
Track officials used the extra day to soften the grass with a complete watering and aeration. The inner rail was also repositioned.
Work to replace the turf track, which was installed for the 1960 season, began in September. The same grass was used because of its proven ability to adapt and grow well in Del Mar and withstand the track’s use of salty reclaimed water.
The grass is also said to be tough and dense, which keeps the hoof from penetrating the turf.
Several factors go into determining which races will be run on turf rather than Polytrack, McBride said.
“Different animals do well on certain surfaces,” he said. “Certain types of horses are trained on grass. Horses that run on grass are usually of higher caliber. They run for bigger purses. There’s stiffer competition.
“Polytack is universal,” he said. “Some adapt and respond kindly. For the vast majority it proves to be kind to almost all horses.”
Horses are generally faster out of the gate on the Polytrack. Turf racing tends “to end with a great rush at the end. It’s very European,” McBride said.
Each race is carded, or put together, based on several factors, including which of the 2,000 horses are available to race and their caliber.
He also said several factors can contribute to accidents and injuries, including the nature of the sport.
“We take as many precautions as we can,” McBride said. “You’ve got a 1,000-pound animal on thin legs going 45 mph in close quarters. Sometimes there’s bumping.”
McBride noted that within the first nine days of racing hundreds of horses raced without incident.
“We do everything we can to ensure safety,” he said. “Our No. 1 priority is safety. We can’t have any other priority in this business.”
He said most injuries occur in the legs and there is usually no other choice but to put down an injured animal. “You can’t put a horse in a cast and lay it down for six weeks,” he said.
At Del Mar, each horse is inspected four times before it races by three different veterinarians, one of which is appointed by the state.
A vet is also at the starting gate in case a rider suddenly determines something “doesn’t feel right,” McBride said.
But even with all those precautions, unknown pre-existing conditions can result in accidents and injuries during a race, McBride said.
Every horse that dies at the track is mandated by the state to go through “an A to Z necropsy,” McBride said, to determine the cause of death. The results usually take months.
In a press release issued following the two deaths July 26, track officials stated they are “deeply saddened by the loss” of thoroughbred lives but “have the utmost confidence in the course.”
They stated they expect the course will “perform in a positive fashion” following the three days of maintenance.
The 36-day meet runs through Sept. 3, with no racing scheduled on Mondays and Tuesdays, except for Labor Day.
Del Mar is coming off one of its safest years, with only four horses lost during the 2013 season. Its worst year was 2006, when 18 animals were lost, McBride said.