By Dan Ross
With Del Mar’s annual summer meet looming large on the horizon, news out of the track has arrived thick and fast this week.
On Thursday, Del Mar announced that it plans to begin racing a week earlier than scheduled on July 10–pending approval from the California Horse Racing Board–and that the predominantly three-day race weeks will end with a four-day race week on Labor Day, Sept. 7.
On Friday, the track announced its $5.5-million stakes schedule, which this year includes a GI Kentucky Derby stepping-stone in the shape of the $100,000 Shared Belief S. Aug. 1 for 3-year-olds.
The past couple of days, the track has also been under fire in its local San Diego Tribune newspaper. Last year, two horses fatally injured in a freak accident–two of only four catastrophic equine injuries the entire meet–mistakenly ended up at a rendering plant, rather than UC Davis for a mandatory autopsy. In Saturday’s SDT, columnist Bryce Miller criticized the track for not being transparent about those missteps.
The TDN spoke to Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president, Josh Rubinstein, about these topics, and other preparations underway at the Southern California venue.
TDN: This time last year, you were preparing for the summer meet against the backdrop of the Santa Anita welfare crisis. This year, it’s a different sort of crisis you’re having to handle, to put it mildly. Broadly, what are your thoughts with opening day mere weeks away?
JR: Given the climate and everything that’s gone on with the [Covid-19] pandemic, actually feeling somewhat optimistic. Things seem to be getting better by the day if not the week in terms of, outside of horse racing, other industries opening up.
Horse racing has done well during the pandemic–it’s great Santa Anita and Golden Gate are up and running. We’ll have New York next week. Kentucky. Everybody’s been in a pretty dark place the last month or so, but there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. From Del Mar’s perspective, we’re pretty excited about our racing program–nine weeks of racing this summer, which is the longest we’ve ever had.
As it stands now, racing will not be open to the public, as is the case with tracks across the country. Guidance is changing weekly, so, we’ll continue to work with local and state officials on what that guidance looks like in July and August. But in terms of today–what is it, May 30–we’re racing without spectators. That is what is in our license application for the CHRB for their June 11 meeting.
TDN: Is there a chance that, at some point in the meet, that restriction could be relaxed in some way regarding spectators?
JR: Ultimately, we’re going to work with state and local officials on what that guidance is. We worked with them on our current plan. Look, having people at the races at Del Mar is a San Diego tradition. Folks from all over Southern California and from all over the country love coming to Del Mar, and so, if we were able to do that, we want to. But again, we’ll see what the climate looks like in July and August, and we’ll continue to work with our state and local officials.
TDN: If racing does proceed spectator-less this summer, what kind of hit will that have to your bottom-line, and can these holes be plugged other ways, given how, for example, 90% of the wagering at Del Mar is typically done off-track anyway?
JR: Del Mar is one of the few horse racing venues which generates significant on-track revenue–for us, during the summer, it’s about $17-million of revenue when you look at ticketing, group sales, sponsorship, concerts, etcetera. It will be a challenge for us to operate without that revenue. But, as you said from a wagering standpoint, 90% of the wagering on our races takes place off-track, the majority of which is online. The ADW numbers have been really strong in-state and out-of-state.
We’re working very closely with TVG, who’s our terrific partner on ADW and broadcasting. NBC Sports network has been working with TVG on re-purposing TVG content on their network, so, we’re hopeful to be part of that this summer. So that’s encouraging.
We’re working very closely with TVG analysts on what the internet betting markets will look like–racing has certainly benefitted from the fact that it’s been the only game in town from a wagering standpoint for a couple months. So, we’ll see what that looks like come July and August, but we’re encouraged.
We also have some out-of-state import products that will occur during our summer meet that we’ve never had before including the [GI] Kentucky Derby Sept. 5, the [GI] Kentucky Oaks Sept. 4–those are traditionally two of the biggest wagering days in the country. So, any wager in Southern California–either through the internet, on-track or at simulcasting facilities—on those races, results in purse generation and track commissions for Del Mar.
TDN: You’re facing additional losses from the cancellation of the annual fair this year–how impactful is all of this on your annual $1.25 million bond obligation to the state’s 22nd Agricultural District?
JR: We’ll see what our operating results are. Like I said, we’re optimistic based on the internet numbers we’re seeing. But certainly, not having the on-track revenue that I spoke of earlier is going to be significant.
We have reduced expenses significantly. We won’t have the on-track staffing that we normally do with patrons. It’s hard to make an exact prediction on what the numbers will be by the end of summer. But certainly, we’ll have a better idea as we get a couple weeks of racing under our belt.
TDN: You’ve said that you’ve been working with other industry leaders and experts to devise a set of protocols for this summer. What can the horsemen expect to find in place when they ship in?
JR: We’ve had the luxury of time. Folks at Santa Anita, they were dealing with this real-time–same with New York. Like you said, we’ve been working with other industry leaders, medical experts, to come up with our procedures and protocols. We’ve also been in continued communication with the horsemen, the trainers, owners and vet’s.
One of the important things, because of the fair not occurring this year, we’ll be able to open our stable area much earlier. We’ll be opening June 26, which is 14 days prior to racing which begins July 10.
The trainers will have a designated window of arrival so they can get their horses in, staff situated. We’ll be testing folks on the backside every 24 hours, temperature checks. We’ll have wrist-bands denoting the folks who have been checked, and that’s consistent with other tracks throughout the country.
The backside will have significant hand-washing and sanitizing stations–those will be throughout the barn area. Everyone will be required to wear facial covering, both front side and backside. We are taking all of the safety precautions necessary to deal with the pandemic.
TDN: Could this involve limited owners’ viewing in the morning, like Santa Anita has just instituted?
JR: Right now, only essential staff on the backside. However, Santa Anita just instituted for owners that, if they have a horse training, they can watch their horse work. We’re working on that protocol now. We fully understand it’s very important for owners to see their horses, and we’re doing everything in our power to ensure that happens.
TDN: There’s been quite the reordering of the racing schedule for this summer. It calls for 291 races over nine weeks–the track carded 297 races over its eight-week 2019 summer meeting. Throughout most of the summer, you’ll run predominantly three-day race weeks. I’m assuming this is being driven partly by fears over horse inventory?
JR: We’ll have right around 1800 horses on track–the same as last year. But certainly, we rely on 2-year-olds quite a bit. And the inventory numbers that we’re looking at, a lot of 2-year-olds have stayed on the farms longer than normal because there was a suspension of racing for two months. We’ve taken that into account. Based on that, and horse population, we felt that three-days-a-week was the appropriate thing to do.
However, from an owners and trainers standpoint, we’re going to be providing right around the same race opportunities as we did last year, so, it’s more in the packaging over the nine weeks, and we’re excited to have folks down here for an extended period of time.
TDN: For quite a few years now, the track has been aggressive about attracting out-of-state runners. In that regard, how do things look this year?
JR: Really good. Both [executive vice president of racing and industry relations] Tom Robbins and [racing secretary] David Jerkens–two of the best in the business–they’ve not only been talking to our local trainers multiple times per week, getting them ready for the transition to Del Mar, but there’s certainly been a lot of out-of-state interest and discussion.
We’ll announce our ship-and-win details next week. The program provides starter bonuses and increased purses for out-of-state horses that run at Del Mar. While ship-and-win is certainly appealing to out-of-state stables, last year 70% of our ship-and-win runners were from local trainers acquiring horses from outside of California.
We’re encouraged. Tom and David have gotten a lot of interest, and I don’t want to jinx it, but we’ve got some pretty big names looking at running here this summer.
TDN: Can you name names?
JR: I think Tom and David would strangle me if I did, but they’re in talks with a number of guys, and there’s a lot of interest to be out here this summer. It’s hopefully something in the next couple of weeks we’ll be able to announce.
TDN: In terms of equine safety, your summer meet last year was a widely-regarded success. You implemented a few extra measures last year to compliment the ones you’d made the years prior. Will all those same measures be in place again this year?
JR: While we’re really proud of our safety record, it really was a group effort between the trainers, the vet’s and the owners. There’s still more work that needs to be done. The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database that was out earlier this year showed that 99.9% of racing at Del Mar was conducted without serious injury, so, we’re very proud of that. But we want to continue to get better.
As you mention, all of the safety protocols that we had in place [last year]–the house rules on medications, the additional veterinary oversight in the morning–that will all be in play again this year. I guess the big difference–and it’s not just at Del Mar but at major racetracks across the country–is no Lasix for 2-year-olds. That will start for us this summer.
TDN: Taking Santa Anita’s lead, Del Mar took steps to ban trainer Jerry Hollendorfer from the facility last summer–an action he overturned in court. Will Hollendorfer be allowed access to train and race again this year?
JR: We have not received a stall application as yet from Mr. Hollendorfer, but when we do, we’re happy to look at it like we do with every trainer. We haven’t received one yet.
TDN: If and when Hollendorfer does submit one, what do you think your response will be?
JR: We’ll look at it just like we do every trainer.
TDN: Finally, a San Diego Tribune editorial ran this morning criticizing the track’s transparency after two horses fatally injured last summer were accidentally taken to a rendering plant. Do you have any comment about the way the track handled that incident, and/or about the editorial?
JR: The incident last summer was a particularly complex issue, especially with an ongoing CHRB investigation. We pride ourselves on the media accessibility and transparency we provide and we strive to do our best, even in challenged, sensitive and multi-faceted situations.