The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (DMTC) is set to invite crowds of spectators to the seaside track Wednesday for the start of its 80th racing season but a deadly season at Santa Anita Park is hanging a cloud of controversy over Opening Day festivities.
Del Mar Opening Day falls less than a month after the Santa Anita Park's troubled season ended with 30 horse deaths and the banning of Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
And while Del Mar officials would like the focus of Opening Day 2019 to be about hats and parties, they do anticipate opponents of the spectator sport to be outside the gates this year, as there have been in previous years.
"Obviously, the media, the politicians, and the people are all looking at us saying, 'Hey, what's going to happen,'" DMTC CEO and President Joe Harper said as crews were getting the grounds ready for Opening Day.
But Harper is quick to emphasize that Del Mar's operations are different from how their racing colleagues to the north run their track.
He often points out that the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database ranked Del Mar as one of the safest racetracks in the country in 2018. The racetrack had an injury rate of 1.45 per 1,000 starts last year, slightly below the national average of 1.68.
A tough racing season in 2016, when Del Mar had at least a dozen horse deaths, prompted changes at the track, according to Harper. But in the wake of Santa Anita's scrutinized season, additional changes will be made at Del Mar.
This year, the racetrack has created a five-person entry review panel that will look at each of the 1,800 horses and analyze their medical history before they race. Additionally, veterinarians will be on-site each time horses conduct morning training.
The board is also restricting the use of anti-inflammatories to two days before a race and they have increased random out-of-competition testing.
"The state veterinarians are going around drawing blood from different horses at different times to make sure there's nothing going on there that shouldn’t be going on," Harper said.
In previous years, the track reduced the number of racing days to give ground crews more time between the closing of the San Diego County Fair and the opening of the racetrack.
Harper said the minute fair employees knocked down their rides and booths -- at midnight on July 4 -- racing crews began working for 18 hours a day to get the dirt track safe. Crews had less than two weeks this year to get the grounds ready.
Other changes that will be carried into 2019 include having fewer horses on the grounds, about 350 fewer this year.
The changes do come at a loss for the DMTC -- additional spending on safety measures and loss of racing days add up to about $5 million this year. But Harper says horse safety is their number one priority.
"If it was $20 million it would be worth it. I think the number one issue for us is safety -- safety for horse, that makes safety for riders," he said. "We’re not driven by profit, right now were driven by safety and were going to keep it that way as long as I’m here."
Behind the scenes, the workers who prepare the horses for raceday say there is no one more worried for the horses' safety than they are.
To the ones that think horse racing should be banished all together, caretaker Leandro Mora says, "Those people have no clue what we do with horseracing. We treat our racehorses like our own kids. We love them."
No injuries were reported on Opening Day but two horses were scratched for minor incidents.