A week before horses started dying more often than normal at Del Mar, on July 18 a California Horse Racing Board member expressed his concern about the racing surfaces at another California race track — Santa Anita.
“It just scares me to death when I see horses come off the turf and onto the dirt,” commissioner Steve Beneto said, talking about the course at Santa Anita. “Are we breaking horses down out there?”
In the meeting transcript, Santa Anita’s president, Tom Ludt, quickly assures Beneto that they are not breaking horses down — insider language for the catastrophic injuries that lead to euthanizing the horse. But, he says, the turf course did get “a little hard out there.”
“We’re only as good as our surface,” Ludt says, and then describes how the recently renovated turf course at Santa Anita got a little hard but they went back to work on it to soften it up.
If it sounds familiar, that’s because Del Mar’s spate of horse deaths in the past few weeks — 12 since the meet began on July 17 — drew attention to the track’s new turf course for thoroughbred racing. At least 5 of the dead horses suffered catastrophic injuries racing on the turf course that opened for this meet.
But of the 135-page transcript of the open part of the California Horse Racing Board meeting, that’s the only discussion of track surfaces and horse health — before other commissioners shift the conversation to the question of how to get more people to the track.
“That is one of our biggest issues with the industry,” says Kathy Guillermo, a vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Guillermo’s close study of horse racing across the U.S. — including undercover video of how New York race horses were mistreated — resulted in a New York Times report in March.
“The regulatory boards — and not just California — are strictly focused on marketing and keeping the sport alive,” says Guillermo. “There’s rarely talk of the horses and their safety,” she adds. “If the industry and the regulators would stop thinking about the marketing and start thinking about the horses and how to race them without hurting them, more people would be interested in the sport.”
Last year, California’s 13 racing tracks generated $3 billion in bets; in 2013, Del Mar’s 37-day run generated $462.5 million in betting, according to the board (which includes former actress Bo Derek).
Commissioners spend a good part of the meeting on marketing to draw new fans. But it’s what doesn’t come up in the meeting that’s interesting.
For example, the track at Los Alamitos has had a spate of horses testing positive for forbidden drugs, according to reports on the racing-board website. And the controversy raging over a horse that tested positive for tranquilizers — after a startling underperformance at the Santa Anita track in March — doesn’t come up either.
Those matters are usually discussed in closed session or committee, board spokesman Mike Marten said.
The board does approve about $780,000 going to horse charities – including one for retired racehorses run by board member Marilyn Auerbach, who abstains from the vote. There’s little discussion about horses or the charities. It takes a single page of the transcript to cover.
A week after the July 18 meeting, horses started dying. At least half were catastrophically injured racing on the new turf track. Horses have to be able to stand up to stay alive, veterinarian Rick Arthur explains, so a bad break to a front leg — the most common racing injury – is a lethal break.
According to the Jockey Club’s database of equine injuries between 2009 and 2013, horses were injured at a rate of around 1.9 per 1000 times horses ran out of starting gates on all surfaces. The rates of injury to horses running on the synthetic tracks was consistently at least 30 percent lower than average. Races on dirt had the highest injury rates, but turf races weren’t far behind.
Del Mar’s new turf track — now twice rehabilitated — was built at a cost of around $5 million, according to Del Mar Thoroughbred Club spokesman Mac McBride. It is 25´ wider than the old turf track.
“It allows us to be Breeders’ Cup eligible, but more importantly, it allows us to conduct good turf racing at Del Mar whenever we are open,” he said in an email. The turf course augments the track’s polytrack course, which was put in in 2007 and will be removed after the fall racing meet ends November 30, he said.
Although the new track seems like an obvious villain, PETA’s Guillermo doesn’t think it’s the heart of the problem.
“I’m leery of saying what’s causing [the lethal injuries],” she said. “We can’t simply say it’s the new turf. In Europe, they have far fewer breakdowns and the horses run on turf. We’ve always felt that turf, done well, is the safest surface.”
Guillermo says she wants to see the veterinary records of the horses, which are inspected several times before they race. She thinks it’s likely that the horses are being pushed to run when they shouldn’t.
“Our investigation found the horses don’t have sufficient time to recover and heal from ligament and other soft-tissue injuries, and they are being drugged up to the week they race to mask the injuries instead of letting them rest and recover,” she said. “So they start the race compromised and end it catastrophically.”
Trainer Jim Cassidy, the president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, agrees with the notion that it’s the horses, not the track.
“I run 20 to 25 horses and all of them have been on that turf without a problem,” he said. “I’ve talked to all the jockeys and they see no problems – jockeys pay attention because a horse breaking down is very dangerous for the rider.”
Instead, Cassidy says, he thinks it’s the horses.
“For example, the horse that was injured [on August 1] hasn’t run at that level and hasn’t worked in three or four weeks,” he said, suggesting the horse wasn’t prepared to race.
There are tricks to getting past the pre-race inspection, he said.
“An iffy horse – the trainer will walk the horse every day instead of galloping every day. If he was galloped, his ankles would be swollen and the vet wouldn’t let the horse race. But with walking, he looks okay on the day of the race,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy says he won’t risk a horse but acknowledges that there’s plenty of pressure on owners and trainers to do that.
“Why would you risk the horse’s life and the jockey’s life?” he says. “If I have an owner like that, I’ll send him on his way. If they’re taking risks like that, shame on them.”
But with purses as high as $550,000 a day at Del Mar in 2013, and a racing schedule that moves many of the same thoroughbreds from one track to another for the season — plus fewer horses to race each year, the pressure to race each horse is on, Guillermo says.