DEL MAR, Calif. - Two horses died Thursday morning after colliding during a training session at Del Mar, track officials said.
The accident happened near the six-furlong pole just after 6:30 a.m., the morning after Del Mar's opening day.
“These things are very rare – extremely rare – type of accidents. I’ve been running tracks for 50 years – think I’ve seen about four," said Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper.
One of the horses, 2-year-old Charge A Bunch, trained by Carla Gaines, threw his rider, Geovanni Franco, turned sharply, ran in the wrong direction and collided with the other horse, Carson Valley, according to a statement from the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Carson Valley was an unraced 3-year-old trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert was completing a four-furlong workout for jockey Assael Espinoza.
Espinoza was taken to a local hospital after complaining of lower back pain. He underwent a CT scan, according to the Daily Racing Form and was released a few hours later.
Espinoza is the nephew of Hall of Fame jockey and Triple Crown winner, Victor Espinoza. Victor was training with the horse "Bobby Abu Dhabi" in July 2018 at Del Mar when the animal suddenly had a heart attack and collapsed. The jockey was thrown from the horse, fracturing vertebrae and suffering other injuries to his neck and left arm.
“This was a very unfortunate accident and it is a shock to everyone in the barn," Bob Baffert said in Del Mar's statement. "We work every day to take the best care of our horses but sometimes freak accidents occur that are beyond anyone’s ability to control. This is one of those times and we’re deeply saddened for the horses and everyone involved.”
In an afternoon news conference regarding the deaths, Harper compared the collision to a wrong- way driver on an interstate highway. Harper said the track's safety protocols were followed correctly and there was no outside influence on the horses to make them collide.
“All the safety protocols were followed. Everybody responded very quickly to this loose-horse incident. But it just happened too quickly," said Dr. Rick Arthur with the California Horse Racing Board.
Arthur said the accident was also a byproduct of the horses' young ages. Young horses, much like teenagers and young adults, "do silly things, whether you're on the race track or whether you're on the ranch," Arthur said.
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Carla Gaines said she had not experienced a similar training accident in more than 30 years of training race horses.
"Our whole barn is still in shock and grieving for the loss of the horses and my heart goes out to both of their owners, Bob [Baffert] and his team," Gaines said.
The race track began its 80th racing season Wednesday in the midst of heavy criticism of the sport of horse racing from animal rights activists. A total of 30 horses died during the Dec. 26-June 23 racing season at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, prompting calls for increased safety measures and an indefinite closure of the track.
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.
Since 2016, 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.
Regardless, animal rights activists pounced on Thursday's accident as evidence that horse racing is deadly no matter where it takes place. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called on California horse racing tracks to release records of horses who have gotten loose on the track as well as a full investigation by the CHRB.
"Saying that deaths are inevitable in racing is like saying a swim team can't compete without drowning," said PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo in a statement. "If racing can't be done without horses dying, it shouldn't be done at all."
According to Arthur, the horses are expected to undergo necropsies at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory in San Bernardino to establish a clearer cause of death. The necropsies are in accordance with standard operating procedures for the state and the CHRB after a race horse's death.
“We’re going to keep our vigil up. We’re going to keep with our protocols. We’re going to expand even more what we can do over the next year to keep this industry as healthy as possible," said Harper.