Each summer, I’m fortunate enough to spend time in Del Mar, Calif., a small town north of San Diego that hugs the Pacific Ocean and is more than 2,000 miles and a world away from the summertime heat and humidity of my Lexington, Ky., home.
Del Mar, of course, also has a racetrack. In the 1980s, when I lived in Los Angeles, Del Mar was the “small” track on the Southern California circuit, dwarfed by Santa Anita Park and Hollywood Park in attendance, pari-mutuel handle and regional and national significance.
Today, after the sad demise of Hollywood Park, which forced Santa Anita to stretch its meeting from late December to early July, Del Mar has the state’s most successful race meeting – a boutique season that runs from mid-July to early September and features the west’s best horses and several of its most important races, including the $1 million Pacific Classic.
Because it is the California race meeting that now gets the most attention, it also has been under the microscope of animal rights protestors who have moved a dozen miles northward from SeaWorld, the aquatic life park that they pressured into ending a captive whale program. These protestors are against the use of animals for entertainment purposes, especially when the lives of those animals end tragically.
That, unfortunately, is the world we live in.
Last year was not a good one for Del Mar, at least in terms of equine fatalities and the attention the sharp increase in racing and training deaths brought. Animal rights protestors were a daily presence. Del Mar officials privately worried that another year like 2016 could put the track out of business.
That concern forced a horse industry best known for paralysis by analysis into action. Together with the California Horse Racing Board, Del Mar officials took multiple steps to improve safety of horses and riders, knowing full well that all catastrophic injuries cannot be eliminated but that they can be reduced.
The first step was to try and make the racing surface as safe as possible, increasing the banking of turns and adopting similar maintenance schedules and practices as those employed at Santa Anita. Del Mar’s dirt track surface was purposely made deeper, which led more than a few horsemen to complain about it being a laboring and tiring racetrack. Officials also reduced the number of Thoroughbreds stabled at Del Mar and established rules that restricted the first 10 minutes following renovation breaks to horses scheduled to breeze.
Secondly, the number of official veterinarians was increased to continually scrutinize horses during morning training hours and for pre-race inspections of horses entered to run in the afternoon.
Those veterinarians paid special attention to horses that fit within several categories that were considered to be “higher risk” than the general equine population and were identified using the InCompass software in the racing office.
For example, first-time starters aged 4 and up were considered higher risk, as were horses returning from layoffs of 120 days or more. Horses previously on the vet’s list for injury or lameness or the stewards’ list for poor performance were also given greater scrutiny.
These higher risk categories were identified by researchers combing through the Equine Injury Database, established by the U.S. Jockey Club in July 2008. The database compiles a list of equine fatalities at nearly all North American Thoroughbred tracks and the circumstances surrounding their catastrophic injuries.
This Equine Injury Database has been extremely useful in helping researchers and veterinarians understand how these fatalities can be reduced – and the national average has declined by 23 per cent in the last seven years, from 2.00 per thousand starts in 2009 to 1.54 in 2016.
The measures taken at Del Mar appear to be making a difference. While this is written with two weeks remaining in the summer meet, the number of ambulance runs in the morning and afternoon has declined considerably from 2016. There have been no headlines in the San Diego newspapers and local television newscasts about horses dying at the track, as there had been in previous years.
When the industry applies itself and uses the tools it has at its disposal, it can make a difference.