DEL MAR — With zero horse deaths or serious injuries during racing this summer, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is calling its 80th season’s safety levels “unprecedented.”
The racetrack has seen a gradual decline in the number of horse deaths since 2016, when Del Mar witnessed 23 horse fatalities. Since 2016, Del Mar has been rated among the country’s safest horse racing venues, with 0.79 horse deaths per 1,000 starts in 2018.
Four horses died this season during training. Two died in what has been referred to as “a freak accident” — a head-on collision between two horses that caused immediate death. The two others were euthanized after incurring injuries during morning training.
The industry at large has faced heightened scrutiny in recent years due to high horse fatality rates, with the press and public calling out racetracks and prominent trainers for allowing unfit horses onto the track or using medication to mask pain before a race.
Public criticism reached its peak after 30 deaths were confirmed at Santa Anita’s racetrack during the 2018-2019 race season.
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper called Santa Anita’s last season “an emotional low for the industry.”
In an effort to turn public perception and decrease horse fatalities, the Thoroughbred Club doubled down on its safety efforts this summer.
The club brought in an entry review panel to judge the fitness of horses for racing, restricted the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories to 48 hours before a race or workout, prohibited the use of a riding crop during morning workouts and implemented random testing for horses at the Del Mar stables.
Their efforts built on a number of changes Del Mar made in 2017 and 2018, such as reducing the number of race dates in its summer season and making improvements to the racing surface.
For the first time, the club brought in two veterinarians to closely monitor the 1,850 horses that train at the track every morning.
One of the full-time veterinarians, Dr. Alina Vale, said the presence of veterinarians had a “real impact” on both the fatality rate, and the general well-being of Del Mar’s horses.
“We were preventing horses from training that weren’t necessarily going to have a fatal injury but had an underlying minor injury … we were improving the welfare of all horses in training,” said Vale.
Vale would sit in the grandstands every morning starting at 4:30 a.m. and start taking notes on subtle hints that a jockey might not pick up on: a particular nod of the head, a tendency to lean less on one leg.
She would help determine whether horses were allowed to keep training, could use a more controlled exercise program, or needed time off from racing entirely.
Vale said the mere presence of veterinarians served as a signal to trainers.
“They were more cautious and careful of training horses they shouldn’t be training,” she said. “They were weeding those horses out themselves.”
According to Harper, the controversy over Santa Anita was a wake-up call to many trainers who previously “never realized their profession was in jeopardy.”
“It’s not business as usual,” said Harper. “I think we’ve made a major step in the thinking and the culture of these trainers.”
However, Harper said many have simply left the state to seek out racing opportunities back east, to “get out of Dodge” as he put it.
The outcome, he said, was a significant decline in the quantity of horses this season. The number of race starters decreased by about 14%, from 2,765 in 2018 to 2,372 in 2019.
And with less horses, the number of races saw a 6.6% decline.
Throughout the season, groups of protestors found their way to the racetrack to demand a ban of the industry. Erin Riley-Carrasco, an Oceanside resident who has been protesting the races for years, said the Thoroughbred Club’s new safety measures are not enough.
“We do not believe in middle grounds,” she said. “These animals are being exploited.”
Whether or not the public is taking note, attendance this year at the Del Mar racetrack took a 13.8% dip, from 470,529 in 2018 to 405,504 in 2019.
Harper, who has been working at Del Mar’s track for over four decades, said the Thoroughbred Club is continuing to look at ways to make the industry safer. The club has had discussions with the Stronach Group — which runs the Santa Anita racetrack – and the New York Racing Association to discuss the potential implementation of uniform standards on medication, for example.
But changes begin at home, and for Harper, that has meant looking out for both the safety of the horses, and the best interests of the horsemen.
“We’ve brought people back to feeling good about the industry and showed that there was certainly hope for the future, and that other tracks are hopefully coming along in the same way,” he said.
Lexy Brodt covers all things Del Mar and Solana Beach for The Coast News, with a primary interest in coastal development. A North County native turned UW-Madison alumna, she has produced for Wisconsin Public Radio and reported for The San Diego Union-Tribune and Wisconsin State Journal.