DEL MAR — Opening day at the Del Mar racetrack is one of the biggest local events of the year. Dressed to the nines, wearing ever-larger hats, thousands flood the Del Mar Fairgrounds to watch the first horse race of the season.
But this year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
The horses may still run, but it remains a looming question of whether fans will be there to watch them.
“We’re going to do whatever the governor suggests,” said Craig Dado, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s chief marketing officer. “We would love to race with fans, but we are prepared to race without fans.”
Regardless of the changes ahead, the 2020 race meet is still scheduled to kick off on July 18, reported DMTC President Josh Rubenstein at the 22nd District Agricultural Association Board’s April meeting.
“We are very fortunate that time is on our side,” said Rubenstein, pointing out that opening day is still another three months away.
However, this update came minutes after the Board announced the cancellation of the 2020 San Diego County Fair, and hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom said that any gatherings or sporting events this summer were “unlikely.”
But unlike with most sports, horse racing itself has the critical advantage of involving little human contact — just a jockey and his horse. There is no evidence at this time that horses can spread, or become infected with, the novel coronavirus.
Due to this fact, several facilities across the country have continued racing, but without audiences. This includes Los Alamitos in Cypress, for example.
“Horse racing is currently the only game in town, so to speak,” said Rubenstein. “Certainly people are looking for things to do. And horse racing, in addition to providing jobs … is providing that.”
According to Dado, this scenario is financially feasible due to the amount of off-site betting that racing attracts. He said that about 90% of the Del Mar racetrack’s betting is done away from the racetrack.
“There is a business model that can be put together that would only include wagering with no fans here at the track,” he said.
But Dado says DMTC’s number one priority is the well-being of the 4,000 racehorses in California and the roughly 1,500 workers who care for those horses in Del Mar.
“The racing is secondary in our minds,” Dado said.
DMTC has had to furlough some workers, but Dado said they are hoping to hire them back as soon as possible. Regardless of the changes, he said the track is still prepared to take in their usual 1,800 horses this summer.
Due to animal welfare being deemed an essential service, the state-owned stabling facilities remain open to provide care to the horses on-site. According to Rubenstein, DMTC continues to provide housing and health care to the organization’s workers as well.
In a statement issued to The Coast News, DMTC reported that they will follow public health guidelines in moving forward — whichever direction that may push them.
“We will continue to work with the relevant public health officials as we get closer to our scheduled opening and will make decisions on any potential modifications at the appropriate time,” the statement read.
At the 22nd DAA meeting, several speakers commented both for and against the race season moving forward.
Several animal rights activists discouraged opening the racetrack, both due to moral qualms about horse racing in general and concern about the spread of COVID-19 by racetrack workers. Speakers asserted that social distancing while horse racing isn’t possible and that jockeys and workers on the backstretch may be needlessly exposed to the virus.
“Jockeys are side by side leading up to the starting gate, they’re side-by-side in the starting gate, they’re side-by-side in the races,” said Martha Sullivan, drawing comparisons to running and cycling — which have both drawn cautions due to the spread of respiratory droplets during exercise.
The industry has gained its fair share of opposition over the years, primarily due to horse deaths that occur during racing. Del Mar has gained a reputation as one of the safest tracks in the country — with its safest season on record last year.
Local resident Jim Coleman encouraged the fair board and DMTC to work together to make a summer meet happen, to continue supporting racetrack employment and the health of the industry.
“We might not have fans at the thoroughbred meet this year,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a meet.”