By Dan Ross
Though Del Mar's annual summer meet is still two months away, preparations for it are in full-swing–preparations that are being driven in part by unfolding industry-wide changes, precipitated by events at Santa Anita this winter and spring.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the announcement that Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (DMTC) CEO Joe Harper made recently concerning a series of safety and welfare protocols the track will be instituting this summer. This includes the adoption of International Federation of Horseracing Authorities medication standards, the addition of more veterinarians to oversee morning workouts, increased out-of-competition testing, bolstered stable security, and the formation of a stakeholder advisory committee.
These measures, said Harper, will be instituted alongside the other safety measures that Del Mar has adopted in recent years to successfully reduce fatality rates. TDN recently sat down with Josh Rubinstein, DMTC president, to discuss these proposed changes, as well as his thoughts concerning the meet in general.
The following is a lightly edited version of the conversation.
TDN: Obviously, events at Santa Anita this winter are still very much front and center within the industry here in California. How have they impacted preparations for your summer meet?
JR: The safety of our equine and human athletes continues to be our top priority. We're very proud that the last few years have been some of the safest in Del Mar's history. You've probably seen The Jockey Club's recent injury database report. Ours is one of the safest tracks in the country, but we're always striving to do better.
TDN: Can you tell me more about which International Federation of Horseracing Authorities medication standards you'll be adopting?
JR: We'll be instituting many of the IFHA's medication standards, which are the strictest in the world, and these are the same protocols that are currently in place at Santa Anita. We're working with the [Thoroughbred Owners of California] on the things we need to implement as house rules. The feedback we're getting from the horsemen and the backside community is that it's taking a bit of time, but they're getting more comfortable with the new procedures. I think everybody involved feels like this will make California racing truly safer.
TDN: By how much will you be increasing out-of-competition testing?
JR: We're going to be increasing it a lot. While some of the details are confidential in order to protect the integrity of the testing process, I can tell you it will be significantly expanded this summer, and we will include morning training. We will take a percentage of horses working each morning as part of the out-of- competition testing.
TDN: Joe Harper also announced that you're developing a stakeholder advisory committee. Who will be on that committee, and what will the committee do?
JR: One of our corporate goals at Del Mar is to be inclusionary and transparent with industry stakeholders, and the advisory committee is really just an extension of that. We're still working on representatives, but we'll definitely have somebody from the trainers and jockeys. They'll meet regularly with us to discuss items such as racing surfaces and our race-day operations.
Like I've said, we'll be doing some new things this summer. We talked about the IFHA reforms, but we'll also have enhanced security on the backside, increased veterinary presence in the morning to observe the works. It's not going to be perfect, so we want to get feedback from our stakeholders. If there are things, maybe a couple weeks into the meet, that are suggested to us by the committee that makes sense, we're all about adopting it.
TDN: Del Mar recently joined with other major North American tracks calling for a partial ban of race-day administration of Lasix. That ban would start with 2-year-olds of 2020 and extend to stakes races in 2021. The Lasix debate is hardly a new one, but can you explain a little more about this decision? For example, a number of horsemen have made the observation that horses are more prone to bleed at Del Mar than certain other tracks.
JR: We acknowledge that there are strong feelings and not complete consensus on this issue. This is our third-rail issue within the industry. But we believe the recently announced national policy, which has more consensus than prior plans, is an important step. To be perfectly candid, we hope the national plan will be a catalyst for the national adoption of California's stricter rules regarding cortico-steroids, anti-inflammatories. Lasix gets all the headlines, but we believe those are the reforms that will truly ensure a safer environment for racing and training.
TDN: Who did you speak with prior to making the decision on Lasix?
JR: We had a really positive meeting with the vets at Santa Anita. About seven or eight of the top vets were represented, as well as the [California Thoroughbred Trainers]. We're in constant conversation with the CHRB, including the California equine medical director, Rick Arthur. Lasix is a hot-button issue, and it gets all the headlines, but the things that are being put in place in California, we're hopeful that on the national side, the Lasix reform is just the first step. I'll be in some industry meetings next week in Baltimore with stakeholders to talk about that.
TDN: Field sizes have been an issue at Santa Anita recently–they're racing only three-days at the moment, for example. You've promised to race five days a week this summer. How confident are you that you'll be able to maintain the large field sizes you enjoyed last year (on average 8.7 per race)?
JR: Our racing product has been outstanding, especially the last couple of years. But, we are keenly aware of what's happening in the state. Our racing team has been actively recruiting out-of-state horsemen, and, we're in touch with local trainers, especially the guys that have shipped horses to Kentucky. The good news is, based on the feedback that we've received from the local trainers, we feel relatively confident that most of the California horses that went out of state will be returning for Del Mar this summer. As it stands now, we're planning on running five days a week.
TDN: Which out-of-state trainers have bitten?
JR: I don't want to jinx it. [Executive vice president for racing and industry relations] Tom Robbins and [racing secretary] David Jerkens have been working very hard to get some out-of-state stables here. Since 2017, when we had the Breeders' Cup, there has definitely been more interest. We've seen that more in the fall, with the Kentucky guys sending a string out here, and certainly for the stakes in the fall. Chad Brown tends to send a string out here for the final week of stakes races. We think we're making good inroads for the summer, too.
TDN: You've announced further modifications to your “ship & win” program. For example, the initial ready check for imports has been increased to $2,500, and the first-race purse bonus has been boosted to 40 percent. Why these additions?
JR: Our ship-and-win program has yielded tremendous results. In 2018, we had 158 ship-and-win starters at Del Mar. A lot of people don't realize, those horses stay in the circuit. Those 156 ship-and-win starters at Del Mar combined for another 286 starts in California last year. The immediate impact is felt at Del Mar, but the California circuit benefits throughout the year.
It's interesting, while our racing guys definitely use ship and win as a tool to recruit out-of-state horsemen, we actually created ship-and-win as an incentive for local stables to purchase non-California horses, and it's really worked. Seventy percent of our ship-and-win starts have been from California trainers.
TDN: The CHRB is currently looking to revise the current whip rules, and perhaps ban the use of the whip for anything other than safety purposes. What's Del Mar's position on the issue?
JR: We believe this is one where we need to look at the outside industry optics, and recognize that, while this may be a perception issue, it needs to be addressed nonetheless. We feel it's very difficult for the industry to say, 'horses love to run,' and then defend the use of the riding crop to encourage them to do that. We're hopeful common ground can be reached on riding crop reform. I think it needs to be, and I can tell you that recent stakeholder conversations on the topic have been very positive.
TDN: Del Mar has for many years had an open line of communication with animal welfare organizations like PETA. Some within the industry have criticized that policy. What do you say to that criticism?
JR: I think you need to have communication with the outside world. You can't bury your head and say we're only going to look at this through the lens of horseracing. We do have a line of communication with PETA, and the same with the Humane Society. It's a fine line–I think it's important to get outside the industry perspective. It's also helpful to us to explain to those folks there's a lot of misinformation out there, and when you're able to sit down and look somebody in the eye and explain, from our standpoint, all of the reforms and safety and welfare protocols that we have in place, you get a lot of nods of approval. You're not going to agree on everything, but I think, again, it helps both sides to keep a line of communication open.
TDN: Last year's average daily handle during the summer was up. What precipitated that, and how do you propose to maintain that trend given events this year?
JR: Giving customers a good product to wager on is the single biggest factor, and that is mostly about field size and competitive racing. We've got the best in the business in Tom Robbins and David Jerkens filling our races, and the same goes for handling the racing surfaces, in Dennis Moore and Leif Dickinson. By the same token though, we recognize the narrative surrounding Santa Anita, and that may have an affect on our business. But, we're hopeful, and we're going to work hard to provide a quality racing product that in turn will continue to attract bettors.
TDN: How much of this will be down to marketing?
JR: It's interesting on the marketing side; we do quite a bit in the local community, but what people don't realize is that we are constantly in front of our core customers talking about field size, and pool liquidity, and average payouts, and that is extremely important. From Del Mar's perspective, we had a solid fall meet in 2018, which wrapped up early December, and so, we've been out-of-sight, out-of-mind for a while. It's really important that we've reinforced with our core customers field size and pay-offs and pool liquidity. Really important.
TDN: Attendances have been trending downwards in recent years, but you've mentioned before that you're more focused on revenue per-patron. Is that still a primary focus?
JR: We did make a conscious decision a few years ago to focus less on attendance for its own sake. For example, on those days where attendance might have been inflated through a giveaway, throwing a big attendance number when you don't see those folks coming back, or wagering too much…at the end of the day, it's short-term gratification.
We're focusing on creating the best on-site experience for our customers. Our revenue per patrons continues to grow and we're still offering promotions to attract people to visit and enjoy the venue and atmosphere. This summer, we're really excited about some new lifestyle events focused around gourmet food festivals. And look, Del Mar is part of the fabric of the San Diego community. People are starting to get excited, and talk about us. Pre-season ticket sales have been solid, and we're ready to go for the summer.
TDN: With the meet just around the corner, how would you characterize your expectations?
JR: We're cautiously optimistic. You can't ignore what's gone on 100 miles north of here, but we're constantly in communication with horsemen and other industry stakeholders, and understand the challenges. This is like no other time we've seen. But I think people are anxious from the horseman's perspective to get down here and reshuffle the deck a little bit, and we're excited to have them.