After an eighth horse in two weeks was injured racing on Del Mar’s turf track, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has temporarily closed the track again to make safety modifications, though the club said Friday it is convinced the turf is unrelated to the horse injuries.
The horse was injured Thursday during the seventh race of the day, and has been hospitalized following seven other injuries the first ten days of the racing season at Del Mar. Seven of the eight horses have been euthanized. The spate of injuries has raised concerns about the safety of the track.
“It is unusual, that many deaths in such a short amount of time,” Mike Marten, spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, said this week. Historically far more injuries occur on dirt than on grass turf, Marten added.
Del Mar said the condition of the track is not to blame for the injuries.
“We continue to believe that we have a good turf course; however, incidents and public perception are a tough thing to fight against,” Mac McBride, the Director of Media for Del Mar, said on Friday. “If you go back and look at this incident Thursday, this poor little filly was put in a race where she absolutely did not belong. She was forced to run very very hard against very superior competition.”
McBride said in an interview earlier this week that the turf was not in need of adjustments and that jockeys provided positive feedback about the track racing conditions despite the enduring horse injuries, calling it firm and good for the horses to race on. But because of the frequency of the recent horse injuries, Del Mar decided to modify the track, closing it for three days from July 27 to 30th and moving the scheduled turf races to the Polytrack.
During those days, McBride said the turf track underwent three basic adjustments: moving the inner rail, aerating the course, and giving it extra water. Also, the inner rail was moved out to the 18-foot position instead of the planned 12-foot position.
“We decided to err on the side of safety and move it out to the 18-foot marker. This gave us a very fresh, very firm inside rail position,” McBride said.
Additionally, Del Mar aerated the entire course, loosening the turf slightly and making it a little softer, McBride said, adding that they raised their watering level to soften it even further.
Marten explained that the investigators were reviewing the films of the races, interviewing the jockeys, trainers and owners, and reading veterinary reports to determine if there were any pre-existing conditions that contributed to the horses' injuries. This is standard protocol for any race horse death investigation, Marten said.
The CHRB investigated the turf conditions by taking various measurements, such as the degree of compaction and moisture content of the turf, using specialized instruments, and then analyzing and comparing their data. The turf inspection concluded on Tuesday and CHRB deemed the track safe to race on.
On Wednesday, the first day of racing on the modified track, no horses were injured. But the following day during the seventh race, a filly broke down, prompting Del Mar to suspend turf racing for another three to five days in order to aerate and water the track to soften it further.
“We must try to do everything we can to make what we feel is a safe course even safer. We must take a time out here to allow everyone to catch a deep breath to allow people who are agitated by this, understandably so, to take a step back. Its a very upsetting to us,” McBride said.
Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the CHRB who advises on all matters relating to equine health and welfare and drug testing in the state, said on Friday that the turf track is likely not the reason for these horse injuries, but it may be a contributing factor.
“It’s seldom one thing,” that causes a racehorse’s injury, Arthur said. “Bottom line is 85 to 90 percent of horses have some pre-existing pathology. And when I say pre-existing pathology, much of that is microscopic and undetectable by current diagnostic procedures in veterinary medicine. That doesn't mean we aren’t trying.”
Arthur and McBride explained that the horses are subject to thorough and frequent evaluations and observations in the days prior to racing, on racing day, and occasionally after the race to rule out any health concerns.
California state law mandates that all racehorses undergo a necropsy, or horse autopsy, to determine the cause of the horse’s death or injury that required euthanasia. Nine horses have died this season at Del Mar and all are being investigated, but completing the necropsies can take as few as a couple weeks and as long as several months.
“Myself and others have been spending an inordinate amount of time trying to sort out what the issues are and trying to make the track surface as safe as can be and the entire racing experience as safe as can be," Arthur said.
Del Mar hopes to be able to re-open the turf track late next week, McBride said.