“Death at Del Mar” sounds like a deliciously wicked detective novel. But in real life, it’s a horror story, and a parade of detectives from the pages of Dick Francis, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett would probably be welcome to snoop around under the palm trees at the glamorous seaside racetrack outside San Diego.
But track officials doubt they would find anything.
They’d be looking for clues into the deaths of some or all of the ten horses who have left empty stalls in the first two weeks of race meet. The deaths have been under a combination of circumstances: racing on turf, racing on the synthetic track, and during training. They have also included catastrophic breakdowns from musculoskeletal injuries as well as sudden death from cardiac failure.
The two videos here on The Jurga Report should give you some background. This one was an interview with California Horse Racing Board Director Rick Baedeker a week ago.
Since then, more horses have made their last lifetime starts at Del Mar, and won't be heard of again. While this video is dated, the information about the track is important to understanding the situation.
Focus is on the turf course at present, and the track announced on Friday that it would move all races off the turf for a week while the surface was examined. Del Mar’s turf track is newly refurbished; it had been 50 years since the track had replaced the grass oval, and this was the year to do it, since Del Mar is slated to host the Breeders Cup in 2017.
As part of the Breeders Cup preparation, Del Mar will rip up its synthetic surface and replace it with traditional “dirt”, a trend begun by Santa Anita and repeated by Keeneland Racecourse in Kentucky, which will host the Breeders Cup in 2016.
It is true that synthetic tracks were installed at great expense in an effort to provide a safer racing surface for Thoroughbreds, but in spite of the small but measurable difference in breakdown rates, these tracks are choosing to revert to the traditional dirt. Hopes are high that enough has been learned about dirt maintenance that safety can be improved in these new tracks.
Track maintenance and surface science have come a very long way in the past ten years, a fact that makes Del Mar’s rash of deaths all the more disturbing.
According to track management, Del Mar’s latest round of changes, announced on Friday, include these actions:
- No turf sprints will be conducted
- No races for claiming horses will be written for the turf
- Because of the provisions stated above, overall turf racing will be reduced by approximately one-third at the meet, allowing for additional aggressive maintenance
- Racing surface expert Dr. Michael (Mick) Peterson of the University of Maine has been enlisted as a track consultant
- Pre-race inspections of all racehorses will be enhanced
- All racing at Del Mar will be conducted on its Polytrack main track through next Friday; turf racing is scheduled to return Saturday, August 9
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club officials noted that they had begun consultations with renowned surfaces expert Dr. Michael (Mick) Peterson, the executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, working in conjunction with the track’s turf superintendent Leif Dickinson.
"I am aware of the Del Mar turf course and all signs are that it is a safe one,” noted Peterson. “The measurements and readings I’ve seen indicate they are well within proper parameters. I’ve worked with Leif (Dickinson) in the past and have great confidence in his ability to do things the right way.”
The track says that it will also conduct enhanced pre-race inspections of all racehorses, something the track and state veterinarians currently do on racing days. All racehorses go through four different veterinary inspections – first in the morning, then on three other occasions throughout the day -- prior to racing in the afternoon.
Turf sprints, which place more stress on the grass surface, will also be eliminated.
On Saturday, a three-year-old Thoroughbred named Chattering Gambler collapsed and diedwhile approaching the finish line in the third race. The track attributed his death to cardiovascular failure.
He was the third horse to be listed as dead for a heart-related cause during the meet. In total, four horses died of musculoskeletal injuries on the turf course. One died racing on the synthetic track. Two died during morning training.
According to a comparison published in the Union-Times of San Diego, Del Mar saw four horses die in 2013: one each after races on each track, and two in the morning.