Is Del Mar’s world-famous attraction headed for extinction?
“I grew up watching races with my dad, but maybe it’s time we end all this,” said a lifelong horse racing fan at the Santa Anita Racetrack in the June 3 issue of the New York Daily News. The doomsday observation followed the 26th Santa Anita horse death since December 26. “I brought my daughter today because I don’t know how long this sport will last.”
Then it got worse. Two days later, a horse named Derby River sustained an injury during training. On June 6 Derby River became the 27th horse connected with Santa Anita that had to be put down.
Six weeks earlier, after Santa Anita horse death number 23, Senator Dianne Feinstein declared that racing at the racetrack near Pasadena should be stopped. Governor Gavin Newsom said he will gladly sign new legislation that will allow the California Horse Racing Board to close deadly racetracks.
As the Del Mar Thoroughbred launches its 80th meet on July 17, spokesman Mac McBride admits that Santa Anita “…is having a horrific winter, as bad as they ever had.” He says the deaths are “terrible,” but that no one should worry about losing our own surf-meets-turf pony show. “Some people are catastrophizing, projecting the sky is falling. But the sky is not falling. There are too many good parts for it to end because of one bad run.”
But the big picture isn't just “one bad run” in Santa Anita. Del Mar lost 16 horses in 2016, nine in 2015 and 11 in 2014.
Should Santa Anita Racetrack go away, many in the industry worry that it could imperil the entire West Coast horse racing industry. Founded in 1938, Hollywood Park held its last meet in 2016 before it was razed to make way for the new Rams/Chargers stadium. Published reports have said when octogenarian Dr. Ed Allred passes, the Los Alamitos Race Course he owns in Orange County will be torn down and replaced with new development.
If Del Mar becomes Southern California’s only horse racing meet, it may be financially difficult for the West Coast horse racing industry to survive. Del Mar’s McBride says that industry employs 50,000 to 60,000.
“The horse racing industry has been shrinking for a decade-and-a-half,” says Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “In other states, horse racing has been on life support. That’s why they brought slot machines to racetracks. If it wasn’t for gambling, many racetracks would have closed. But California doesn’t have casinos. Look at Bay Meadows [Racetrack in San Mateo] and Hollywood Park. They both went away.”
About 25 years ago the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club came up with its own plan to ensure its summertime horse racing does not become a passe pastime. You could call it: "Dreadlocks are better than slots."
Booked by the Belly Up Tavern, Del Mar’s after-race concerts known for major reggae artists have buoyed the Thoroughbred Club’s attendance and bottom line. The evening music series seems to have eclipsed the popularity of the races. A weekend afternoon at the races might bring 17,000-18,000, while a day with a major concert draw like Ziggy Marley may draw 25,000 to 28,000.
Last year the standard ticket fee to see just the post-race concert was $20. This year, for the first time, it goes up to $30. This year’s lineup includes a country band and a New Orleans jazz headliner and such heavy hitting reggae artists as Ziggy Marley, Steel Pulse, Iration and Soja.
As in years past, music fans can get admission for just the $6 regular gate admission by showing up before the last race. This year post-race concerts are held every Friday, on three Saturdays, and on Labor Day Monday, which is the last day of the summer meet.
“The concerts have been a wonderful supplement,” says spokesman McBride. “It has become the biggest locals singles club for 20- and 30-year-olds. We feel we are making horse racing fans out of these young people who get here before the show and discover they like the visuals and the action and the competition of the racing. When they come and see our sport, they end up liking it.”
McBride says the success of the Del Mar’s post-race concerts has been noticed and copied by other horse racing venues. “They followed us in Churchill Downs [Kentucky] and Saratoga Springs [New York]. It was a big winner. Good for them. We want to see racing do well everywhere.”
But racing can’t do well if the racers keep dying.
McBride says things are getting better at Del Mar. “Last year we lost six horses. We are not happy with that number. It has to get down to zero. But six is a whole lot better [from 2016].” He says it's important to note that over the course of the summer there will be 65,000 individual horse runnings on the track. “Does horse racing need to get better? Yes. And we are making things better.”
He says he is not at liberty to go into details about the specific measures that have been taken by the trainers and owners who participate in the Del Mar meet. “When Senator Feinstein says something should be done, things are being done.”
McBride says he does not appreciate PETA’s aggressive negativity. “They are yelling at kids," he says about protestors. "They try to make you believe every time we open the gates we are killing horses, and that’s just not true.”
PETA’s Guillermo says she is not in favor of any sport that relies on animals for amusement but says she is realistic that horse racing will probably not be going away any time soon. “Even though it’s a shrinking industry, we realize there is still a lot of money and jobs involved. We are just working hard to prevent suffering and deaths. PETA has been exposing things like using four or five anti-inflammatory drugs on one horse at the same time. Each one by itself may be legal but using them all at once can be deadly.”
PETA says the public outrage over the sometime gruesome horse accidents is now finally moving the needle. “There has been a flurry of bad publicity. This has been an industry that has been incredibly resistant to change until now. They can’t ignore it anymore because the public isn’t going to let them.”
Guillermo says PETA has had more success in "looking under the hood" in Los Angeles than San Diego. “You may remember that spike in horse deaths they had in Del Mar [in 2016]. The San Diego D.A. ignored us then. But this time, the Los Angeles D.A. did not ignore us.”
She says it is her understanding the Del Mar Thoroughbred has agreed to stop the over-medicating practices also agreed to by Santa Anita. “As long as they follow these rules, we will not be protesting.”
It is unclear if Santa Anita’s plight could actually help Del Mar in one aspect: Could this year’s Breeder’s Cup race be moved to Del Mar from Santa Anita? The famous race is rotated to different tracks around the country each year. The Breeder’s Cup Board meets in Kentucky later this month to decide if Santa Anita will continue to host the race November 1 and 2 as planned. Del Mar hosted the Breeder’s Cup race for the first time in 2017 and is planned to again host it in 2021. Members of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club told the governing board of the Del Mar Fairgrounds earlier this year that the racing industry was pleased with how Del Mar’s gorgeous surroundings made the annual race look good on TV.