Changes coming to Del Mar racetrack after at least a dozen horse deaths

DEL MAR, Calif. –Opening Day will be delayed at Del Mar racetrack next year to give horses a chance to get accustomed to track conditions, CEO of Del Mar Races Joe Harper told FOX 5 on Thursday in response to at least a dozen deaths this season.

Animal advocates have been calling for an investigation into recent horse deaths and injuries at the Del Mar racetrack, but Harper says the track is safe.

"I don't think it's the track," Harper said. "It's unfortunate. One horse is too many, obviously. So we are going to be opening a little later next year to give horses time to get accustomed to the track."

The California Horse Racing Board is scheduled to meet in Del Mar at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, but the alarming number of deaths is not the agenda, officials told FOX 5.

Community activist Martha Sullivan says she plans to picket outside the meeting.

“As of last Saturday, 17 [horses] have died during 23 racing days, up from 7 during the first week. It is clear these deaths have an impact on attendees. I’ve seen people’s expressions as they read the signs -- they no doubt wonder why the Racing Board isn't doing anything about it," Sullivan said in a press release.

Animal activist Ellen Ericksen believes the track should have been shut down weeks ago due to the deaths and injuries.

"This is extreme animal abuse disguised as entertainment and gambling," Ericksen said.

Read More: 8 horses die at Del Mar racetrack since Opening Day

Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, who says revenues from horse racing have been on the decline in California for many years, is asking Governor Brown to direct Board appointees to investigate.

“The Board needs to determine why we are seeing an increase in deaths and injuries before increasing gambling in California to subsidize an activity that is decreasing in popularity. Deaths are never acceptable in any spectator sport,” Saldaña said.

Last month, Harper told FOX 5 his team has been scrambling to find out what is causing the deaths.

“When we get a cluster of them like this, we worry,” Harper said. “Because it might be something we aren’t doing right, or we can modify. So, the first thing we do is go look at the racing surfaces.”

Two years ago, after a rash of similar deaths, the track was aerated to slow down the horses, which seemed to curtail the problem. But this year, the issue seems to be something else.

“So far, everyone we talked to said everything is fine. Even the trainers and jockeys we talked to said the track is good,” Harper said.

After a long deliberation with experts, Harper said, a single reason for the deaths is still elusive.