DEL MAR — As opening day on July 17 drew thousands of festively dressed patrons to the Del Mar racetrack, a line of solemn protestors lined up at the fairgrounds entrance holding signs with ominous captions: “you bet, they die,” and “raced to death.”
Many stood quietly, dressed in all black or gray. Erin Riley-Carrasco was likely the most outspoken of the approximately 30 protestors, intermittently repeating “get all dressed up in your finest to watch horses die,” to passing women dressed in ornate hats and dresses.
She said people often look away. Others make joking or disparaging comments.
But to many, the protestors were likely not a surprising sight.
After 30 race horses died at the Santa Anita Park racetrack in Arcadia from late December 2018 through June 2019, public attention has honed in on racetrack conditions across the country.
Safety concerns have run the gamut, with media outlets and animal rights advocates drawing attention to the drugs administered to horses, the use of unfit horses in races and rigorous training schedules.
In light of the growing controversy, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is implementing a broad swath of safety measures during its 80th summer season.
These include steps such as medication reform — administering nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories no less than 48 hours before a race or workout, for example. Other changes include prohibiting the use of a riding crop during morning workouts, stationing veterinarians to oversee morning workouts, and putting all race horses through an entry review panel.
The Del Mar racetrack had 17 deaths in 2016, five deaths in 2017 and six in 2018. According to a press release, the track had previously reduced its racing season from eight weeks to seven weeks to “(provide) additional time to prepare the racing surfaces and to allow horses to acclimate to new surroundings.”
Other changes included hiring a new director of racing surfaces maintenance in 2017, reducing the number of horses on the ground from 2,100 to 1,850, and employing additional veterinarians for pre-race inspections.
Dan Smith, a senior media coordinator with the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, told The Coast News that “everything that can be done is being done to ensure we have safe racing,” although he said he understood the concerns of many of the protestors.
“Their heart is in the right place,” he said. “We lost quite a few horses at Santa Anita…that’s too many horses, that’s too many injuries.”
Smith is confident the Thoroughbred Club “won’t have a situation like they had at Santa Anita.”
“We’ve had no problems through the first week of the season,” Smith said. “The implementation of these checks and balances is so far working very well.”
Two horses died the day after opening day during a training session in Del Mar, but Smith said the incident was a rare fluke, “like a head on collision on the freeway.”
According to the most recent Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, Del Mar was ranked as one of the safest racetracks in the U.S. in 2018. The Database reported that Del Mar had a rate of 0.79 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts in 2018, with the national average amounting to 1.68.
In a recent commentary, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club Chief Executive Officer Joe Harper called the race track an “economic engine for the local community,” highlighting the 5,150 jobs create by the track per year.
And some of those employees opted to support the track on opening day. About a dozen lined up across from the animal rights protestors, holding signs with captions such as “protect our horses and our jobs,” or “I love horses, I love my job.”
Racetrack employee Marcus Semona said this is the first year employees have protested in support of the horse races, in order to “counter the PETA protestors,” he said.
“My livelihood depends on the industry,” Semona said.
The two groups stood at either side of the fairgrounds front entrance, as attendees rushed through, largely unperturbed.
“I think the majority of people have no idea,” Riley-Carrasco said. “They’re here to drink and socialize.”
Attendance at this year’s opening day was 31,276, down 1,836 from 2018.
It is anticipated that the track will bring in more than 500,000 attendees over the course of the season. The summer season will run until Sept. 2, with a total of 36 race days.
Photo Caption: About a dozen Del Mar racetrack employees held up signs in support of horse racing at the opening day of the rack track on July 17. The protestors were there to counter the animal rights protestors, said employee Marcus Semona. Photo by Lexy Brodt