Horse safety top of mind at 80th Del Mar Opening Day

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DEL MAR, Calif. -- The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club begins its 80th racing season Wednesday, with horse racing coming under increased scrutiny in California for the high number of equine deaths the sport regularly sees.

Track officials are touting enhanced safety protocols and their overall record, which they say includes fewer equine deaths than most other tracks in the United States.

Animal-rights activists, however are planning to demonstrate outside the track's main gates at Del Mar Fairgrounds before Wednesday's first post, scheduled for 2 p.m.

Earlier this month, Del Mar officials announced new and enhanced safety protocols for horses and jockeys. That initiatives included a mandate for a five-person review panel to analyze each horse's racing, medical and training history to ensure each horse is safe to race and a ban on the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication fewer than 48 hours before a race or a workout. Previously, NSAIDs were allowed up to 24 hours before a race or workout.

The approximately 1,850 horses stabled at Del Mar will also be subject to increased random testing and analysis, veterinary observation and stable security measures to make sure horses are jockeys are following track rules.

Riding crops will be prohibited during morning workouts and could be restricted further as the track continues consulting with the California Horse Racing Board and the Jockey's Guild. The DMTC also announced the creation of an advisory committee of trainers, veterinarians, jockeys, racing surface maintenance experts and track management to continually discuss how to make Del Mar as safe as possible.

The club announced the increased measures at a time when horse racing is under unprecedented criticism from animal rights activists. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill last week allowing the California Horse Racing Board to suspend racing licenses and race days at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia without public notice due to an unprecedented wave of horse deaths and fatal injuries at the track.

A total of 30 horses died during Santa Anita's racing season, which ran from Dec. 26-June 23. The deaths led to calls for increased safety measures and an indefinite closure of the track while state officials investigate the cause of the deaths.

The DMTC dealt with a similarly deadly racing season in 2016, when 17 horses died during Del Mar's racing season. After remaking its dirt track with the help of race track consultant Dennis Moore and implementing additional safety measures like adding a radiology and ultrasound facility along the track's backstretch, only five horses died during Del Mar's 2017 season and six during its 2018 season.

After instituting the changes, Del Mar has been rated one of the safest horse racing venues in the U.S., tallying only 0.79 horse deaths per 1,000 starts last year, according to the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database. According to the DMTC, the national average was 1.68 among tracks that reported their fatal injuries.

"Significant thought, due diligence and stakeholder input went into the crafting of the reforms we are implementing this summer," said Tom Robbins, the DMTC's executive vice president of racing and industry relations.

"All of us recognize our responsibility to ensure the safety and welfare of the horses that race and train here. We are very appreciative of the cooperation from industry stakeholders including our owners and trainers."

Since 2009, the annual number of horse deaths at California tracks ranges from 138 to 320, but Del Mar has seen far fewer fatalities than other large tracks in the state, including Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, according to data on the CHRB's website.

"The general public must understand that horse racing kills horses at every single track. This is not isolated to Santa Anita," activist Heather Wilson told City News Service in the midst of the recent controversy. She is an organizer with Horseracing Wrongs -- a New York-based nonprofit that is working to eradicate horse racing in the United States.

"We are asking that all horse racing be suspended in California," Wilson said. "We demand that a bill be introduced in the state Legislature that will abolish horse racing. ... No more reform, no more investigations, no more subpoenas. This `sport' needs to end."

In a letter published in Sunday's San Diego Union-Tribune, Joe Harper, CEO of the DMTC, called horse racing at Del Mar "an economic engine for the local community" that helps support hundreds of local small businesses and family farms.

"We understand some fringe animal rights activists have called for the abolition of thoroughbred racing in California," Harper wrote. "For those who suggest pursuit of profit drives us, I would point out that 100% of our earnings are paid/reinvested to the Fairgrounds, which holds more than 300 community-based events per year. Regardless of Del Mar's corporate structure, it is good policy and good business to put the safety and interest of the horses first.

"We believe people's enjoyment of horse racing -- its beauty and pageantry -- and our commitment to stay vigilant and work toward providing the safest possible environment for horse and rider will help to ensure the future of racing here."

Del Mar's summer season will continue through Sept. 2. Races are held Wednesday through Sunday each week with a sixth day of racing during the season's final week.

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