2014 horse race season an ‘anomaly’

DEL MAR — Four breakdowns on the newly installed turf track, part of an overall total of 16 horse deaths during the 2014 summer racing season, and low attendance and betting were an “anomaly,” Joe Harper, president and chief executive officer of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, told the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors during the group’s first meeting since the season ended Sept. 3.

“But any time one horse breaks down, it’s too many,” Harper added.

Harper or other DMTC representatives provide normally positive and upbeat industry updates — locally and nationally — at the board’s monthly meetings, especially when it comes to the place “where the turf meets the surf.”

But with an almost record number of deaths at the track and a decrease in attendance and betting numbers, Harper wasn’t his usual jovial self in front of directors earlier this month.

“It was very frustrating for us,” he said, when a room full of Hall of Fame jockeys and trainers are saying the course is good and we “end up with four breakdowns” on the turf track.

Despite positive feedback from those who work directly with the animals daily, Harper said he and other officials “felt it was prudent to close the course” and perform scheduled maintenance early.

Once it reopened, Harper said it was limited to “top tier” horses that seldom have breakdowns — and none occurred on turf for the remainder of the season.

The new turf course was installed in March using the same type of grass that was taken out because of its proven ability to adapt and grow well in Del Mar and withstand the track’s use of salty reclaimed water.

The project, which began a few months later than originally planned, was undertaken primarily to increase safety for the riders and horses. The old course was installed for the 1960 racing season.

When asked by directors what they should tell the public about the tragedies this season, Harper said every horse that breaks down at any track is required by the state to go through a complete necropsy, or animal autopsy.

He said more often than not the cause is attributed to pre-existing conditions, which he said can be difficult to identify.

“I’m not blaming the trainers,” Harper said. “A lot of times you just don’t see the injuries.”

The day of its race every horse is examined by a DMTC veterinarian, as well as three other times by different vets, Harper said.

With horse deaths making headlines, it is not surprising attendance and betting numbers were down. Harper said it didn’t help that news stations were incorrectly reporting the entire track was shut down.

“Once that thing starts it takes a while to play out,” Harper said. “Still, the damage was done and I think our attendance showed it.”

Two days of rain also contributed to a low turnout one weekend, he added.

Harper said some of the “major players” who place daily bets “couldn’t get here until the second week of racing.”

Despite the problems, Harper said, “All in all I think it was a pretty good meet.” He said things look a little more negative when compared to the 2013 season because that was a record-breaking year.

He said the numbers don’t look as bad when compared to 2012, which was a more “normal” year in terms of attendance and betting.

As for breakdowns, Del Mar had one of its safest meets last year with only four horses lost. Its worst year was 2006, when 18 animals died.

Heart attacks and colic contributed to the non-racing deaths this year.

Harper said the grass track “will be mature and ready for the fall meet” when it opens Nov. 7. “We think it’s going to be one of the best turf courses in the country.”

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