Fairgrounds officials pass 2020 budget, ponder future of horse racing

Attendance for meets at the Del Mar Fairgrounds dropped in 2019 amid the ensuing scrutiny of the sport by media, politicians and animal rights activists.
(File photo)

The 22nd District Agricultural Association’s board of directors approved its 2020 budget Dec. 10, as concerns about the future of horse racing loom over the financial future of the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Tim Fennell, the secretary and treasurer for the board, which presides over the fairgrounds, said next year’s budget is “the most difficult” fairgrounds staff has ever had to address. He added their goal has been to “cut the fat, if you will, but don’t cut the muscle.”

The 2020 budget projects $87.1 million in revenue, an increase from $81.2 million in projected revenue for 2019. Fairgrounds staff said they’re projecting an increase based on 45 shows to be held at the fairgrounds entertainment venue. About $84.5 million has been budgeted for expenses in 2020, compared to a projected $80.3 million in expenses projected for 2019.

A report by fairgrounds staff said 2019 was a “very challenging year financially” for the district following a series of horse deaths at the Santa Anita racetrack over the past year. Attendance for meets at the Del Mar Fairgrounds dropped amid the ensuing scrutiny of the sport by media, politicians and animal rights activists.

Josh Rubinstein, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, mentioned the fairgrounds recent safety record, which includes recognition by the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database as 2018’s safest major racetrack in the United States. Added safety reforms at the fairgrounds over the past few years have included pre-race veterinary protocols.

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club also joined other thoroughbred racing organizations to form the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, designed to better regulate horse racing safety.

“That doesn’t mean our work is done,” Rubinstein said.

Part of that work involves monitoring the legislative attempts to reform the sport. On Dec. 18, a board subcommittee and Del Mar Thoroughbred Club officials will meet with state Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

Board member Lee Haydu said she had been in touch with U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, about the issues surrounding horse racing. A bill introduced in the House by a New York congressman, co-sponsored by Levin and 210 other representatives, would establish a nonprofit agency to oversee anti-doping regulations and a medication control program for race horses.

Oscar de la Torre, a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Board of Education, told Agricultural Association board members to be mindful of the workers whose jobs would be at risk if there are significant cutbacks to the horse racing industry in the years ahead.

“These aren’t just numbers, these are people,” said de la Torre, whose father worked in the industry.

Board member David Watson said the future of horse racing “is going to be based on what the public perceives horse racing is,” noting how opinions toward the sport have been trending negatively due to media coverage of horse deaths.

“The public is paying attention now more than ever to these types of venues,” he said.