Second year back on dirt, after eight years on synthetic surface cut deaths in half
DEL MAR, California––Sixteen horses dead in the first five weeks of racing this year at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club near San Diego has just about everyone associated with horse racing wondering why and what’s next.
One more death will equal the known Del Mar season record, established in 2006, when more horses ran more often and much less was done to try to ensure horse safety.
Song & dance
Far more deaths may have occurred in earlier years at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, founded in 1937 by singer Bing Crosby and actors Gary Cooper, Pat O’Brien, Joe E. Brown, Charles S. Brown, Oliver Hardy.
Back then, though, no one was keeping track.
These days animal advocates and industry insiders tend to be asking much the same questions, albeit with different inflections in their voices.
Business as usual times two
With two weeks of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club racing season left to run before the 2016 calendar closes on September 5, what is most clear is that this summer has not been just business as usual.
It is more like “business as usual times two,” with more than twice the expected mortality rate in an industry which notoriously experiences––and tolerates––what others concerned about horses tend to view as intolerable “wastage.”
“Ten of the 16 horses dead at Del Mar in 2016 were injured while working out and six during races themselves,” recounted San Diego Union Tribune correspondent Chris Ello.
Lost All the Marbles
The two most recent deaths, as of August 21, Ello reported, were “a promising 3-year-old colt named All the Marbles suffered a severe ankle fracture and had to be euthanized. The day before,” Ello said, “Alicanto, a 3-year-old filly, had to be euthanized after she was injured during a workout on the dirt.
“Many say that horse deaths are simply an unfortunate part of the sport itself,” Ello continued. “Thoroughbreds are born to run. Sometimes, no matter how hard everybody tries to prevent it, they suffer catastrophic injuries. That explanation, however, is not good enough for many others — Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president Joe Harper included.”
“Have to keep digging”
Said Harper, “We have to keep digging around. There are a lot of factors at work here. But much of the time, we discover that many of these horses that are euthanized had pre-existing injuries that simply could not be detected.”
That factor alone, however, would not seem to be sufficient to explain why Del Mar horse deaths skyrocketed in 2016. The problem swiftly became evident when eight horses died during the first eight days of the 2016 racing season
Recalled Ello, “A total of nine horses were euthanized during the entire 2015 Del Mar summer meet, the first year Del Mar returned to dirt racing after eight years of using Polytrack,” a synthetic surface.
Deaths began on opening day
The 2016 deaths began on opening day, during the sixth race on the main track, when the three-year-old maiden filly Presidential Air suffered a broken front foreleg and was euthanized due to a poor prognosis for recovery.
On the worst day, July 23, “four horses went down, and Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella opted to rest his star mare, Beholder, rather than run her in a scheduled workout,” Ellio recounted. “However, on that same day, another Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert said he had ‘no hesitation at all’ with running Dortmund,” also a high-priced star horse.
After the first flurry of horse deaths, Ello reported, “one of the top racing surface specialists in the country, Mick Peterson, was brought in by Del Mar officials to inspect the conditions. He gave the track a thumbs-up.”
“He did a lot of measurements, got all of his equipment out, and was pleased with what he saw,” Del Mar executive vice president of racing and industry relations Tom Robbins told Ello.
“But we have to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to keep the race courses as consistent as we can on a day-to-day basis,” Robbins added. “We’re all knocking on wood that after Peterson’s visit, we’re headed in the right direction.”
But more horse deaths followed. Nonetheless, Art Sherman, 79, among of the most experienced of race horse trainers, “said he felt the track was fine and sent California Chrome out,” Ello said, to win the 26th running of the $1 million Pacific Classic by leading the field from the gate to the finish.
California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness legs of the Triple Crown series, “could all but clinch that award again this year,” Ello believes, “if he continues to run anything like he did in blowing out the Pacific Classic field.”
California Chrome might also have been the most controversial horse of 2014, after he was accidentally kicked by another horse near the start of the Belmont Stakes, the third and final leg of the Triple Crown series. Racing despite an open and bleeding wound, California Chrome was whipped 20 times in the next 15 seconds, fading to fourth place, a length and a half behind the winner.
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, ironically, was the first track in California to require jockeys to use riding crops rather than hard leather whips.
“Running from the sound”
Explained San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Tanya Mannes in August 2009, “At the urging of industry leaders and animal-rights activists such as Bo Derek and PETA, the Del Mar racetrack is banning whips that cause stinging – and sometimes raw welts – on horses’ hides. Instead of stiff leather, the new whips have a cushion made of softer material, such as woven fabric or supple leather that makes a ‘pop’ noise when it hits the horse. It’s not loud enough to distract other horses on the track, jockeys said.”
Elaborated Jockeys’ Guild regional manager Darrell Haire, “Instead of running from the sting, they’re running from the sound.”
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club had already become a national leader in trying to reduce race horse injuries and deaths after 17 horses died at the track during the 2005 racing season, and 14 more died in 2006.
After the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club installed an $8 million Polytrack surface over the winter of 2006-2007, horse deaths fell to just six during the 2007 racing season.
Public concern about horse racing injuries soared meanwhile, after 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro suffered a catastrophic injury two weeks later in the Preakness and was euthanized in January 2007 after multiple failed attempts at rehabilitation.
The apparent success of the Polytrack surface at Del Mar came parallel to installations of similar synthetic surfaces in place of traditional packed dirt at other tracks including Keeneland, Santa Anita, Arlington Park, Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields, Turfway and Presque Isle.
Over the next two years, data collected by the Jockey Club from track veterinarians at 34 thoroughbred racing venues showed that horses running on synthetic surfaces averaged 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts, compared with 2.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts for horses running on dirt.
More significantly, the death rates at the California tracks that converted from dirt to synthetic surfaces, under pressure of a mandate from the state racing board, fell from 3.19 per 1,000 starts in 2005-2006 to 1.37 in 2007-2008––an improvement of 57%.
Santa Anita balked
But synthetic surfaces proved to be problematic in other ways.
“Many trainers in California and elsewhere say that synthetic surfaces lead to more soft tissue hind leg injuries,” reported Alan Zarembo of the Los Angeles Times in March 2012. “They also say that the fatality rates seem to be higher on synthetic surfaces during training, possibly because training takes place in the mornings and the properties of a synthetic track may change with temperature and humidity.”
In addition, Zarembo wrote, “Synthetic surfaces can be more difficult to maintain than dirt,” especially an $11 million Cushion Track surface installed at Santa Anita before the 2007 racing season. The Santa Anita drainage system failed in mid-2008, costing the track eight racing dates.
“Attempts to fix the problem only made things worse,” Zarembo wrote. “When rocks began to poke through the surface, the trainers threatened a boycott and the track owners announced that they were giving up on synthetics. The state horse racing board granted Santa Anita an exemption, and the track was reconverted to dirt,” in December 2010.
The results of the re-conversion, however, underscored the success of the synthetic surfaces in preventing the irrecoverable injuries that result in horse deaths.
“The deaths of three horses during the production of the television horse racing drama Luck – which happened to be made at Santa Anita – drew attention to the issue,” Zarembo wrote. “HBO canceled the series after the third incident in which a horse on the set suffered injuries and had to be euthanized,” as were 186 other horses in California due to racing and training incidents in 2011.
“An additional 79 horses died at tracks from other causes, including intestinal and respiratory diseases,” Zarembo found from state racing board reports.
Deaths double back on dirt
At Santa Anita, Zarembo learned, “In three years of running on a synthetic track, there were 26 racing deaths, or 1.5 fatalities per 1,000 starts. After the change back to dirt, there 3.7 fatalities per 1,000 starts.”
At the California tracks retaining synthetic surfaces through 2011 –– Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields and Hollywood Park –– the fatality rate remained low, at 1.8 fatalities per 1,000 starts.
Nonetheless, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013, Del Mar converted back to a dirt surface to conform to the Santa Anita conditions.