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Del Mar strengthens safety standards after Santa Anita deaths

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Horses start the first race of the day at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
(K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club staged the safest horse racing among major tracks in the country in 2018, but after a recent meet with 30 horse deaths at Santa Anita Park, Del Mar’s leadership hardly felt like it could go about business as usual.

For the 36-day summer meet that begins July 17, Del Mar is adding a number of safety and oversight measures to those it instituted two years ago following difficult 2016 summer and fall racing seasons in which a total of 23 horses died in racing or training.

In the last two years, Del Mar’s horse deaths dropped to eight in 2017 (five in summer, three in fall) and seven in 2018 (six in summer, one in fall). In a 2018 report from the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, Del Mar ranked best in safety among nearly two dozen self-reporting tracks, with a rate of 0.79 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts — or fewer than half the national average for deaths (1.68).

The seven fatalities last year, Del Mar officials said, came among more than 76,000 “high-speed” runs that included racing and training. Three of the deaths came during races, among 3,812 starters.

“The bar is pretty high,” Del Mar President and COO Josh Rubenstein said. “But given what’s gone on at Santa Anita, we’ve got to do even more.”

Among the additional protocols at Del Mar this summer will be a five-person entry review panel; medication reform that changes the timing of administering drugs before workouts and races; increases in out-of-competition testing; enhanced stable security; more veterinary supervision for morning workouts, and a ban on the use of riding crops during workouts.

“We think these are good rules. The horsemen have accepted these reforms,” said Tom Robbins, Del Mar executive vice president of racing and industry relations. “There’s not another state that has these same rules with these changes. We’re at the forefront in American racing. We see these as positives.”

The five-member review panel will be in place for the first time at Del Mar after the California Horse Racing Board formed one — at the request of California Gov. Gavin Newsom — for the final two weekends at Santa Anita. Subsequently, a total of 38 horses were either scratched or denied entry to races at the panel’s recommendations.

A panel currently is overseeing the thoroughbred meet at Los Alamitos, and the Del Mar panel will consist of CHRB Equine Medical Director Dr. Rick Arthur, two CHRB veterinarians, CHRB chief steward Darrel McHargue and CHRB safety steward Luis Jauregui.

Unique to the Del Mar panel is that horses will be evaluated once the race entries are drawn, rather than making decisions about horses in pre-entry, as was done at Santa Anita and currently at Los Alamitos.

Del Mar recommended the changes that were accepted by the governor’s office. Rubenstein said allowing the panel to look at horses after entry will give panelists and vets more time to scrutinize and inspect horses.

“It adds a level of scrutiny,” Rubenstein said.

The panel can recommended scratches, with the ultimate decision made by Del Mar stewards.

In an effort to better identify horses whose muscle or joint pain could be masked by drugs, Del Mar is adopting a reform modeled after the International Federation Horseracing Association.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) that once were allowed to be used up to 24 hours before a race will be restricted to 48 hours before races or workouts.

The use of corticosteroids in joint treatment has been extended from a length of three days before a race to 14 days, and horses will not be allowed to start until after the 14-day window.

The goal, Robbins said, is to inspect a horse while in its “natural state.”

“We’re trying to look at the horse without the benefit of it having something in its system that will help the horse feel better,” Robbins said. “If the horse is sore, we want to know.”

Del Mar also will adopt the reduction of the use of the anti-bleeding drug Lasix that was established at Santa Anita, requiring that the dosage be cut in half, from 10cc to 5cc. Lasix won’t be used on the foal crop of 2018 and beyond.

In the past two years, Del Mar added veterinarians who stepped up the inspection of horses, and the track is adding two additional vets for a total of six this year, in addition to the 20 to 25 private vets who work for owners and trainers.

For morning workouts, veterinarians will occupy elevated viewing areas and communicate with outriders to remove suspicious horses from the track and have them undergo a follow-up exam.

In another effort to view horses in their “natural state,” for the first time at Del Mar riding crops can no longer be used to urge horses during workouts, though they can be used during races — a subject that is still up for debate in the industry.

“We want horses to compete at a level they’re comfortable doing,” Rubenstein said.

“Also, for the optics. While there isn’t any correlation between fatalities and riding crop use, the optics of the public seeing the horse being hit is not good.”

The newer initiatives at Del Mar are in addition to actions the track began in 2017 that included a complete renovation of the dirt racing surface; reducing the summer race calendar from eight to seven weeks; the hiring of well-regarded track maintenance supervisor Dennis Moore; the reduction of horses on the grounds by 15 percent, and limiting the use of the inside of the track to fast-running horses immediately after the dirt has been groomed in morning workouts.

Del Mar officials said they have been in regular communication with the offices of Newsom and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who became a vocal critic of horse racing practices after the deaths began to build up at Santa Anita.

After the 29th death, Feinstein and the CHRB called on Santa Anita’s owners, The Stronach Group, to suspend racing before the final six days of the meet. TSG refused to do so, and there was one more fatality to bring the number to 30.

The California Legislature recently passed and Newsom signed a bill, SB 469, that gives the CHRB immediate authority to suspend the license of a racetrack if it deems that riders and horses are at risk.

“It was a sea change for some of our members,” said Greg Avioli, president and CEO of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. “But, ultimately, the people on my board and the people who matter in this industry are in 100-percent agreement. The future of the sport in California is going to require the horse racing to be the safest in the world.

“That’s probably going to mean less races, less low-quality horses. It’s going to have a significant economic impact on everybody. That’s not a positive, to begin with.

“But those metrics are gone now. We’re going to have to build back the sport from a quality-first approach.”

Del Mar is expecting to stage fewer races this summer. For the first three weeks, there are seven races planned on Wednesday and Thursday (though more races are expected on the Wednesday of opening day), eight on Friday, 10 on Saturday and eight on Sunday — or 40 races per week. A typical week last year included 43 races.

The horse population in California is down by 600 horses, Del Mar officials said, because trainers shipped to other states amid the turmoil of 24 racing days lost at Santa Anita. Rubenstein said he expects a number of those horses to return to Del Mar, and Robbins is working closely with Del Mar racing secretary David Jerkens to woo trainers back.

“It’s critically important that we as our team communicate best with the horsemen and regain their confidence in all of Southern California,” Robbins said. “They know that we’re doing our best in challenging times, trying to add some normalcy and stability back to Southern California.”

— Tod Leonard is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune