‘Well, I know the headlines won’t be about big hats.” Joe Harper, longtime CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, is candid. It’s race time at Del Mar, where the humid days of summer usher in over-the-top headdresses, big bets, and, if the pari-mutuel gods are kind, nary a trace of controversy. For those who follow thoroughbred racing and quite a few folks who don’t, the hubbub over race horse deaths has been a prominent feature of the sport of kings lately, and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club needs that like it needs a horse with three legs and a bad disposition.
My disposition at the track is sunny, Jack. You’ll find me in the cheap seats on the apron studying the Racing Form. But, much more than in seasons past, the specter of race horse breakdowns will be on my mind, because to hear some punters fret, any fatal mishap — no matter the cause — could trigger the animal rights lynch mob.
“Del Mar is one of the safest, if not the safest, racetrack in North America,” states Harper, who cites statistics compiled by The Jockey Club which reveal a rather low breakdown-to-start ratio. And he adds, “I can point to a Fall meet where we didn’t have a single breakdown.” Ever affable and accessible, he’s perhaps the premier ambassador of racing, an insider among insiders, and a legit equine-lover. And so far, as I chat with him a week before the traditional Wednesday opening day, he hasn’t picked up the proverbial red phone yet. Hell, he doesn’t even have one, because that’s not Joe’s way. Yet he’s loathe to gloss over the cluster of fatal breakdowns that drew the media vultures 110 miles north at Santa Anita.
I ask Harper, “Do you have a contingency plan if a breakdown occurs?”
“We’re not big on panicking,” he replies “but it’s all in the back of our minds.”
Although the dirt surface at the seaside oval is similar to Santa Anita’s, no sane horse player or meteorologist would wager, even at 100-1, that the deluge of last winter could occur at Del Mar at this time of year. But as Harper and other industry folks freely admit, there’s been scuttlebutt — no proof, mind you — surrounding other factors that may have contributed to the spate of thoroughbred deaths during Santa Anita’s meet, which began on December 26 and concluded in June. One such factor is medication, notably on race day, the discussion of which leads to the 86ing of trainer Jerry Hollendorfer by the Stronach Group (owner of Santa Anita and Florida’s Gulfstream Park) followed by a ban by the New York Racing Association.
By all accounts, Hollendorfer is a top-class conditioner. With over 7000 wins, third-most in history, he’s schooled the likes of Shared Belief and Songbird, two of the most scintillating thoroughbreds of the last couple of decades. But even in the absence of action or commentary by the California Horse Racing Board, the ‘Dorf’s been unceremoniously booted. Harper is reluctant to divulge the nitty-gritty of Del Mar’s decision to join the others in shunning Hollendorfer. He says, “Because of a cluster of deaths, Jerry’s had a pretty good target on his back. I can’t really go into it, but there was a lot to it.”
However, Harper says that drugs weren’t a factor. “I don’t think that had a play in it; I just think that the numbers themselves, especially late in the meet, with two back-to-back deaths, put Jerry in a bad light.”
Not long after Hollendorfer’s Del Mar ban was imposed, the San Diego Superior Court granted the trainer’s injunction to overturn it. Hollendorfer is back, running horses under his own name rather than under the name of his long-time assistant trainer, Dan Ward.
Given the anti-racing sentiment flowing from Sacramento and the sensationalistic coverage offered up by the media, it seems that thoroughbred racing itself is the ultimate target. And in an age in which the Indian slot machines reign supreme among gamblers and the demographic at the track on most days is redolent of SNFs and early-bird dinners, it’s a facile target for the legions of activists who wouldn’t know a gelding from a video game.
Joe Harper is willing to cooperate, transparent about the industry, and wants to make sure that horses cross the wire sound and safe. There’s a lot at stake here, and, as he notes, it’s not primarily about the few mega-buck owners or high-profile trainers. No matter what happens in California, they’ll be ok. But on the backside down on shed row, and in other places of which the public has no inkling, livelihoods are at risk.
I asked Harper about the potential for a ballot proposition to outlaw racing in California, suggesting that given the state’s political climate, it might well pass. But if he’s concerned, he’s not letting on. “It’s very expensive to do.” In the meantime, he’s been in contact with politicians such as Senator Dianne Feinstein as well as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whom he characterizes as being more reasonable than some racing detractors. “You know those folks with the signs who protest outside our gates? PETA says they not members of their group.” With a laugh and an audible sigh, Harper says of the ultra-radicals, “They even want to ban Thanksgiving turkeys. They’re militant vegans.”
California bans a lot of things and regulates many others, sometimes to the point of de facto prohibition. But, as Harper notes, the worst-case scenario would be a shitty wager — not only for the “little people” whom some pols ostensibly champion, but for the horses themselves. “Who would take all those horses? They’d probably end up being euthanized.”
Thoroughbreds are fragile creatures. Often majestic, sometimes expensive, typically preened and pampered — but saddled with bones and ligaments that give out from time to time. At Del Mar this summer, owners, trainers, jockeys and horse players, pray that those times will be few in number and be viewed in perspective. To that end, Joe Harper wants to get the word out.
“We’ve been pretty proactive talking to the TV stations and saying, ‘We’re not Santa Anita.’ Over the past few years, we’ve put more vets on duty and had more time between the end of the fair and the beginning of our meet, and there are fewer horses in the stable area. But we’re also doing some new things that Santa Anita did after the numbers got way out of hand: Now, we require a vet to watch a horse gallop before we allow it to work in the morning; we’ll be testing more horses in the stable area on a random basis; and we’ve implemented extended pre-race time spans for certain permitted medications. The object here is to make sure that when a horse gets to the track, he doesn’t have any medication in his system that makes him feel any better than he actually is. Even an analgesic like phenylbutazone” — “bute” to race trackers — has to be a little farther out, which allows the vets to get a better look at horse.”
Notwithstanding Del Mar’s changes, opines Harper, what beset Santa Anita earlier this year didn’t come out of a syringe, but from the clouds. “I think that the primary reason for Santa Anita’s problem was the weather; they had one of the rainiest winters ever. Unlike baseball, racing is like football in that you don’t usually get called because of rain, but there’s probably a point where you need to stop it. That’s what they did eventually at Santa Anita, although they probably did it a little later than they should have.
“What was out of the ordinary was the clustering of the fatalities; there have been meets where we’ve seen these numbers over a span of time, but it didn’t happen all at once, and I think that’s what got the attention of the media.” In turn, says Harper, “It got the attention not just of the animal rights people, but the politicians — the Governor’s people, Senator Feinstein’s people, who’ve asked, ‘What’s gonna’ happen at Del Mar? Is it going to be like Santa Anita?’ We’ve brought them up to speed on what we’ve done over the past few years and the safety measures we’re adding.”
“Is there any discussion of another surface change in the works?”
“Sure. When we put the synthetic surface in, it did what we wanted it do — it was safer. But it was also a lot slower, and quite a few trainers didn’t like it because you’re breeding horses for speed.”
“We all weighed in. We’re realists; you can’t kill 30 horses at a race meet and expect it all to go under the carpet. It was national news, every night for about 10 days, and it’s something you have to deal with. There are a lot of folks who’ve been in this industry for a long time, and I don’t think they appreciate the danger we’re all in if we don’t react in a positive and aggressive manner.
“Whenever there’s a breakdown, we try to find the ole smoking gun, which is very difficult. Some horses that break down are sound, have never been on medication, and have never taken a bad step. We look at every horse via a committee that goes through all the entries, and I think we can eliminate a lot of potential problems by doing that. We have 1800 head of horses — every one being looked at by a lot of people.”
Harper believes that the general public understands, to some extent, that no matter what job a horse performs, including serving as a pleasure riding companion or just hangin’ in the pasture... breakdowns are inevitable. “But it’s the minority, the ones who are very passionate about it, who don’t understand”
“Do you believe their ultimate goal to end horse racing?”
Harper concludes, “I seriously doubt whether an animal rights person will back off.”