THE DEL MAR CONUNDRUM

Del Mar racetrack near San Diego was founded in 1937 by Bing Crosby and several celebrity partners. One of the investors was businessman Charles Howard, who owned Seabiscuit. Del Mar quickly became a popular place and remains so today.

At the conclusion of Del Mar’s 2012 summer meet on September 5, Matthew T. Hall of the U-T San Diego newspaper published an article titled “Death a Part of Life at Del Mar Racetrack.” Unlike the 2012 articles and opinion pieces by the New York Times, regarding horse breakdowns and deaths at America’s racetracks, Hall provided a factual and reasoned report of the problem Del Mar has had with horse injuries and fatalities.

In 2012, 11 horses died during the 37 days of the Del Mar meet. Nine of these were due to injury and two to heart attacks. According to statistics that Hall retrieved from the California Horse Racing Board, the number of horse deaths at Del Mar since 2001 were as follows: 2011, 12; 2010, 5; 2009, 9; 2008, 14; 2007, 12; 2006, 13; 2005, 23; 2004, 26; 2003, 17; 2002, 22; and 2001, 13. Hall did not say how many of these deaths were due to injury as opposed to natural causes. He did report that 200-300 racehorses die every year at California tracks, which is unacceptable.

The temptation is to blame Polytrack for Del Mar’s problems. The synthetic surface was installed at Del Mar in early 2007. However, in the six years (2007-2012) that Del Mar has raced on Polytrack, the average number of horse deaths annually = 10.5 and in the six years immediately prior to the installation of Polytrack, the average number of horse deaths annually = 19. Thus one could infer from the facts that Polytrack has helped rather than harmed.

Polytrack is used at such North American racetracks as Arlington Park, Keeneland, and Woodbine, plus prominent tracks in Europe and elsewhere. In order to evaluate the horse-injury rate at Del Mar, one would need to have the comparable figures for other Polytrack racetracks. Absent these statistics, the Del Mar death rate seems alarmingly high.

Del Mar is under the direction of competent executives and the trainers running horses at Del Mar are generally some of the best. Moreover, Del Mar is not the kind of venue where low-level claiming horses–near the end of their careers and susceptible to injury–compete.

The on-track horse deaths at Del Mar cannot be dismissed as a string of bad luck because the problem has persisted over the years of the 21st century.

To get at the causes of the breakdowns, one must research a very straightforward question: What is done differently at Del Mar, as compared to, say, the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course? This kind of inquiry can generate potential explanations that can be tested. For example, even such remote possibilities as the effect of ocean atmospherics and summer temperatures on footing need to be explored. What are the breakdown statistics for Monmouth Park, also a summer-season racetrack near an ocean, compared to Del Mar?

The perplexing breakdown problem at Del Mar threatens the reputation of what is one of America’s premier racing meets. At some point, the number of horse deaths at Del Mar is likely to tarnish the track’s image and affect attendance and handle. Moreover, this is not the picture that the racing enterprise wants to project, anywhere, but especially not at one of its most visible locations.

But even more important, the death rate is troubling from the standpoint of animal welfare. Accidents are certain in any kind of competition, but the Del Mar situation, in my mind at least, is well beyond normal. An intensified search for answers must begin now, well before the 2013 edition of “Where the surf meets the turf” opens.

Here is hoping that a solution is found.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business

Comments

  1. The biggest issue with Del Mar is that the plant also serves as a Fair Grounds which ends just a few weeks to the opening of the racing season. There are other seasonal activities which occur at the track which results in pedestrians and vehicles traversing over the racing surface. This would have to be taken into account when comparing Del Mar to say, Saratoga which is a facility used exclusively for horse racing.

    Some years back during the inaugural season of polytrack, I sent an editorial to the Daily Racing Form which they printed. Reviewing break downs at Del Mar going back to the 1990’s I discovered that the vast majority of break downs, (especially in years when they were in the high teens and twenties) the vast majority of those on main track occurred during the first 10 days of the meet. This was consistent and easily verifiable to look at even today.

    For 65 plus years the Del Mar racing surface was fit for horse racing then something changed. Whether it was public perception , media coverage, public interest groups or real.

    My belief back then was and is today that the racing surface needs time to settle and be properly prepared for racing. That or a longer time is needed from the Fair ending to the racing season starting to get the track back in proper condition. The dates for the SD Co. Fair will never change. As a result an inordinate amount of break downs are going to occur, be they on an organic surface or artificial one.

    I believe that the data over the years will show that it’s the first 10 days of the meet that is the problem and not the actual surface itself.

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