Feinstein staff, Atkins visit Del Mar amid horse racing safety concerns

Jockey Joe Talamo and Collusion Illusion scored a close victory Aug. 10 at the Grade II, $200,000 Best Pal Stakes.
(Kelley Carlson )

Following a spate of horse deaths in Santa Anita over the last year, state Sen. President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and a team from U.S. Rep. Dianne Feinstein’s office made separate visits to the Del Mar Fairgrounds over the past few weeks to learn more about safety measures officials there now have in place.

Atkins visited the fairgrounds with her staff on July 24, and members of Feinstein’s staff met with the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club on Aug. 8. Fairgrounds officials said the informational visits, to brief both leaders on the safety measures the club put in place nearly two months ago, and the feedback they received was positive.

Mac McBride, a spokesman for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said members of the club’s executive staff were present for the visits.

“Both parties were interested in seeing what we had done in the way of safety measures in light of the terrible winter/spring season that had unfolded before us at Santa Anita,” McBride said via email. “We showed them first hand what we had put in place to enhance safety.”

Thirty horses died at Santa Anita over the racetrack’s past season. Its owner, the Stronach Group, said it’s been “one of the most challenging times in our history” in a June statement. Following a set of reforms that went into effect in March, the Canada-based company said fatalities during racing and training have decreased by 58% and 80%, respectively.

Lizelda Lopez, a spokeswoman for Atkins, said the senate pro tem wanted the opportunity “to see how the [Del Mar] track is maintained and prepared before and after each race, including horse and jockey safety.” Tom Mentzer, a spokesman for Feinstein, said the senator “remains interested in seeing that horse deaths be reduced to the minimum possible number.” When the death toll at Santa Anita hit 29 in June, Feinstein joined the many voices calling for the racetrack’s closure.

The Del Mar racetrack had three fatalities in 3,812 starts in 2018, a rate of 0.79 per 1,000 starts, according to the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database. The national average last year was 1.68. Four horses have died during training at Del Mar so far this season, and the racetrack hasn’t had to close.

“We haven’t had any [closures], and hopefully we’ll get through the summer without that,” said Richard Valdez, president of the 22nd Agricultural District’s board of directors, discussing racetrack closures during the board’s Aug. 13 meeting.

Safety measures newly enacted this year include a five-person panel to review all horses entered to race in Del Mar, medication reform that restricts horses’ intake of certain inflammatories to at least 48 hours before a race (previously 24 hours), more random testing for horses stabled in Del Mar, a bolstered stable security team to make sure the rules are followed, and a stakeholder advisory committee to oversee safety practices and other race day components.

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the 22nd Agricultural District are also still involved in a lawsuit with hall of fame horse trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, following their decision to ban him from the track due to multiple deaths of horses that were in his care leading up to the start of racing season at Del Mar. At the end of July, a judge granted Hollendorfer’s request for a preliminary injunction that will allow him to continue racing in Del Mar. The next court date is a status conference on Oct. 25.

In June, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will allow the California Horse Racing Board to call a vote at any time to suspend racing at any track if horse health and safety is at risk.