Two horses died Thursday morning in a freak training accident at Del Mar, track officials confirmed.
Mac McBride, director of media for Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said one of the horses, Carson Valley, was an unraced 3-year-old trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. The other horse, a 2-year-old named Charge a Bunch, was trained by Carla Gaines.
Jockey Assael Espinoza — who was riding Carson Valley — was transported to a local hospital, Del Mar said in a statement.
“He’s OK, he got lucky,” said Brian Beach, Espinoza’s agent. “It’s just a mild sprain of the back. He wasn’t riding [Thursday], so he will rest up and hopefully be able to ride this weekend.”
Said Baffert: “I’m just thankful (for) Espinoza; it could have been worse. ... He went up in the air and landed on his back. He said he had a little pain.”
Geovanni Franco, who was riding Charge a Bunch, was not injured, track officials said. Franco rode as scheduled in Thursday’s first race, but declined comment through a Del Mar spokesperson.
Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, works full time for the California Horse Racing Board. Arthur said during an afternoon news conference at Del Mar that a clinical examination revealed both horses suffered cervical fractures.
“We are deeply sorry for the horses and their owners, trainers, riders and grooms,” Del Mar’s statement said.
According to Del Mar CEO Joe Harper, Gaines’ horse unseated Franco and began running the wrong way and collided with Carson Valley. The horses were killed on impact, Baffert said.
Carlsbad horse owner and handicapper Jon Lindo, who had his back turned about 100 yards away, said “it sounded like a car crash. Some people told me you could hear it back at the barns.”
Said Baffert: “It happened so fast. They were working from the gate, coming around and all of a sudden, I see this horse like hang a U(-turn). The horses, they never saw each other. It was just a freaky deal.
“I’m still pretty shook up about it.
“... It all happened in like 10 seconds. Some people yelled, but they had like a 3-second warning. It gives me chills thinking about it.”
Baffert said he had only witnessed a collision like this once in his long career, about 15 years ago in Kentucky. Del Mar’s Harper said in his 40 years of being around racing, “I’ve maybe seen three (incidents) this devastating. Nobody’s at fault here. It’s one of those freak things. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Baffert echoed those thoughts, saying, “You can’t really say it was anybody’s fault. It was an unfortunate accident — a freaky-type of accident.”
Carson Valley — owned by Mike Pegram, Paul Weitman and Karl Watson — was completing a workout when he was struck by Charge a Bunch. One of the horses working with Carson Valley was trained by John Sadler and ridden by Victor Espinoza — Assael’s uncle who was badly injured here last summer when a horse he was working in the morning broke down.
“The horse (Thursday) was going for Victor and at the last minute, he jumped and hit the other horse,” Baffert said.
Baffert said Gaines “called me crying. She felt horrible. ‘I’m so sorry.’ It’s not her fault.”
Gaines declined to comment but issued a statement via Twitter:
Jockey Joe Talamo, who was riding one of Baffert’s 2-year-olds and was close to the collision, said the horse traveling the wrong way stayed tight to the rail. His riding group, which included Assael Espinoza aboard Carson Valley, was moving at a brisk pace as it passed the spot on the track labeled the seven-eighths pole.
Talamo said he was about a length and a half back from Victor Espinoza, to the outside. The workout group came along up a pair of galloping horses just before the accident.
“All that horse could see was four horses in front of him,” Talamo said. “He didn’t know where to go really since he was on the rail. It literally sounded like a car crash. When I got past them and heard that sound, all I could do was pray for Asa (Espinoza). When you hear a sound like that, it’s not good.
“I’m glad he’s OK.”
The incident occurred about 6:40 a.m., fewer than 12 hours after Del Mar completed its opening-day card. Eighty-eight horses competed in 10 races Wednesday without any apparent injuries. This is the first major race meeting in Southern California since 30 horses died at Santa Anita between Dec. 26 and June 23.
Necropsies will be performed on the horses to determine if there were any contributing factors, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the state’s Business Consumer Services and Housing Agency, which oversees the California Horse Racing Board.
“We don’t like to see that kind of thing happen at all, but I think it’s a bit different from a horse collapsing after a race,” Heimerich said.
A five-person panel, which began at the tail end of the Santa Anita season, continues to review the fitness of horses, and the process appears to be working so far, he said.
“We’ve already gone through some of the first races (at Del Mar) and we have done a couple scratches already.”
State Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), who sponsored the bill, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, that allows the CHRB to suspend racing at tracks when dangerous conditions exist, said in a statement, “We are continuing to look at ways to improve safety at California horse racing tracks. But at the same time, it’s hard to anticipate every calamity and we certainly couldn’t prevent a freak accident like this.”
Patrick Battuello, the founder of Horseracing Wrongs who monitors horse racing deaths nationally and has called for the abolishment of horse racing, acknowledged that a two-horse collision is “not common at all.” But he said that was irrelevant to the fact that horses died.
“The racing industry is already trying to dismiss this as a freak accident, something beyond their control,” Battuello said in a phone interview. “I don’t accept that. For me, it doesn’t matter where the horse dies, whether it’s on the track, back in the stall, or at the slaughter house. The bottom line is every dead horse is an industry casualty. The industry owns all of these dead horses.”
--- Staff writers Kristina Davis and Tod Leonard and L.A. Times freelance writer John Cherwa contributed to this report.