By T. D. Thornton
Book-ended by last summer’s spate of equine fatalities at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the track’s highly visible hosting of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships this autumn, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) met at Del Mar July 20 and led off by detailing new safety measures that have been instituted for the just-started season.
“If there’s an upside to the experience we all had last summer, it’s that the board, working with [Del Mar], has come up with provisions that we think are going to better safeguard horse and rider,” said CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker. “And these are things that we think can continue going forward.”
Although last year’s deadly problems were only referred to obliquely in a discussion that instead focused on positive initiatives moving forward, the policy changes are partially based on pressure from animal welfare activists, who protested outside the CHRB’s Aug. 25, 2016 meeting at Del Mar and then testified in a public commentary session that the number of training and racing fatalities was as high as 19 at the time of that meeting.
One improvement, Baedeker said, is that the CHRB and Del Mar now jointly scan the InCompass race entry software system to identify and flag horses that “merit additional scrutiny.” That means they could require “multiple examinations before those horses run.”
That list, Baedeker said, will include “any 4-year-old that has never raced; horses that have ever been placed on the vets’ list for injury or lameness [or] been placed on the stewards’ list for poor performance; or have not started for 120 days or more.”
In addition to being flagged for more detailed exams, Baedeker said, “it could be, in an extraordinary situation, that the official veterinarian requires that a scan or imaging be done.”
Separately, the CHRB has rolled out new veterinarians’ and safety stewards’ assignments so that the schedules are staggered to provide dark-day coverage at Del Mar, which has not been the case in previous years, Baedeker said.
Baedeker added that Del Mar has reduced its stall allocation capacity from 2,050 last summer to 1,850 for the current meet, “which reduces the traffic on the racetrack.” Del Mar is also continuing a practice it instituted at the end of last year that restricts on-track activity for the first 10 minutes after training begins or after renovation breaks so that only horses participating in timed workouts will be allowed on the surface.
Baedeker detailed Del Mar’s main-track maintenance overhaul, which has “changed the banking significantly. It starts earlier; ends later, kind of at the same points that the track at Santa Anita does. The banking was increased to 4%. They went down to the base, started from scratch, brought it up. Then there were spots in the base that needed to be corrected all the way around.”
After studying data that showed that Del Mar’s main dirt track doesn’t really settle into a consistent surface until three or four race days have been run, Baedeker said Del Mar preceded the meet this summer by working the track on dark afternoons for a few days in the same way it would if races were in progress, which meant sending the harrows and watering equipment around the oval every half hour throughout the day.
The turf course, Baedeker reported, has established “nice, dense growth, which the Bermuda grass should afford you. [But Del Mar management] hoped that they’d have a little more hot weather,” as opposed to the recently muggy conditions.
Regarding the track work, commissioner Alex Solis, a longtime California-based jockey who has been inactive from riding since April because of an injury, said, “I had a few conversations with a few of the riders, and I think they are all very happy with what has been done with the track. I had some really positive feedback from all of them. I wish I was riding this year, because it looks very good.”
Baedeker said the CHRB recently met with the San Diego chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to detail all of the above initiatives and to hear the group’s concerns in advance of the Del Mar meet.
“This past year has not been easy. It has been very difficult for all of us in terms of trying to guarantee not only the product we put out, but the safety of all participants, equine and human,” said commissioner Madeline Auerbach. “It has been kind of a labor of love, because I have witnessed everybody taking this very seriously, doing what we need to do, taking a lot of slings and arrows, getting accustomed to everybody yelling at us…If what we were doing before was not working, then we needed to change it. And I think we have accomplished [improving safety standards] without interfering too much with the spirit and the integrity with the way horse racing is run.”
Del Mar, Auerbach added, is “always obviously going to be the focal point of the [public scrutiny] storm, and this year is particularly important because of the international stage that will be here in November with the Breeders’ Cup.
“And we will continue,” Auerbach concluded. “I’m not saying we’re going to sit here and pat ourselves on the back. We’re going to continue to try to work on it to make it as humanly safe and enjoyable as possible.”
Two potential racing rules changes were on Thursday’s agenda.
A proposed amendment to CHRB Rule 1663 to provide that a claimed horse in ineligible to race in any other state than California (except in a stakes race) until 60 days after the close of the meet from which it was claimed will be studied further by the CHRB’s Legislative, Legal, and Regulations Committee before being potentially brought back before the full board for action.
That measure was presented as a commission-level way to improve short fields by cutting down on the number of horses being claimed in California that end up being transferred to other states where they are lured by gaming-enhanced purses. Del Mar and Santa Anita Park currently have house rules that call for similar restrictions.
Baedeker said that the last time the board considered making such a rule at the commission level in 2003, the legal landscape was different and racing’s so-called “jail” rules were broadly interpreted to be illegally restrictive of interstate commerce. But legal challenges by other entities since then have narrowed the federal scope of what constitutes interstate commerce, and the claiming regulation could now be more defendable if such a rule was implemented, the CHRB has been advised by its legal team.
The regulations committee was tasked with reporting back to the full board at the August CHRB meeting.
Separately, the board unanimously advanced an amendment to CHRB Rule 1865 in response to a half-dozen or so instances a year where first-time geldings are not being reported and announced to the betting public in a timely manner. The new version of the rule would order a horse scratched “if the true sex of the horse is not reported to the racing office prior to the opening of wagering for the race in which the horse is entered.”
That amendment now faces a 45-day public commentary period prior to a vote for full adoption by the CHRB.