Del Mar Races: Cruel As Ever

by on August 25, 2016 · 1 comment

in Culture, Health, History, Organizing, San Diego, Sports

Martha Sullivan

Photo by John Nicksac via Facebook

By Doug Porter

There’s disagreement over how many horses have died at the Del Mar races this year. Animal rights advocates say it’s 18. The Union-Tribune says 16. The Daily Racing Form says 14. Some of the variance, no doubt, comes from the time frame from when it was reported.

Regardless of the final number–and it’s likely to increase by the time the summer season ends on Labor Day–more horses have died this year than last. Betting is down, and purses for the last two weeks of the season have been reduced by another 5% on top of the across the board 10% reduction from 2015.

Saturday, August 20th, was supposed to be the biggest day of the racing season at Del Mar, the $1 million Pacific Classic, including big name horses Beholder, California Chrome, and Dortmund. It started with another death.

From the Daily Racing Form:

Shortly after the first renovation break at 7:45 a.m., the 3-year-old filly Alicanto, trained by Eddie Truman, broke down just past the finish line after working five furlongs in 1:01.20. She was euthanized, bringing to 14 the number of horses put down after sustaining injuries while either racing or training here this summer. There were nine deaths last summer.

Her exercise rider, Manny Rotella, 65, was thrown to the ground and did not move until being placed on a backboard by paramedics, who arrived quickly and transported him to Scripps La Jolla Hospital. According to Truman, Rotella was complaining of pain in a wrist.

Alicanto’s only prior race at the track was a last-of-10, 27-lengths-back over a year ago.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The 3-year-old filly Alicanto was euthanized and became the 16th horse during this summer’s meeting to suffer a fatal injury during training or racing at Del Mar, according to Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and adviser to the California Horse Racing Board.

“We always monitor things very carefully,” Arthur said. “There’s no trend we can identify. We will continue to look at this well past the end of the meet. We’re obviously concerned whenever there’s a fatality. We’re aware of what’s going on.”

On Sunday morning, a 3-year-old colt named All the Marbles suffered a severe ankle fracture and had to be euthanized.

From the Union-Tribune:

“What California Chrome did was simply awesome to see,” said Joe Harper, president and CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. “We need our heroes to be great for our sport to be great. But at the same time, we need to do everything we can to try and protect all of our horses.”

Many say that horse deaths are simply an unfortunate part of the sport itself. Thoroughbreds are born to run and sometimes no matter how hard everybody tries to prevent it, they suffer catastrophic injuries. That explanation, however, is not good enough for many others — Harper included.

“We have to keep digging around,” Harper said. “There are a lot of factors at work here. But much of the time, we discover that many of these horses that are euthanized had pre-existing injuries that simply could not be detected.”

The UT article goes on to say that the 2017 season will be starting “later than usual (July 19) so that horses will have a couple of weeks after the end of the Del Mar Fair on July 4 to get more comfortable with the track and their surroundings.”

They’re also promising to have veterinarians looking at horses more often.

Overhead Light Brigade protest signage, via Facebook

Overhead Light Brigade protest signage, via Facebook

Not So Cool

The 2015 season at Del Mar performed so poorly that the UT ran an article titled “Del Mar not cool as ever to everyone,” riffing on the track’s marketing efforts designed to bring a younger, hipper crowd to the track.

Going into the final weekend, overall handle is down over $13.3 million from a year ago, according to figures compiled by Roger Newell. And it’s worse compared to 2013, down nearly $51.5 million.

Attendance is off by an average of more than 2,000 a day, down over 12.6 percent compared to last summer. On-track wagering is off by more than $10 million or more than 13 percent from a year ago. The oleanders aside, the problems are much deeper for Del Mar these days, and Harper is the first to admit it. He refused to make excuses.

A State Subsidy?

Help for the ailing business of horse racing could be in the offing, should the legislature take up the Internet Poker Consumer Protection Act (AB 2863). Aficionados are hoping this bill will pass, with up to a $60 million annual subsidy for tracks for funded by on-line gaming.

Animal rights activists have been busy lobbying against the bill, and it looks like they’re getting some last minute help from the politically powerful Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and Lytton Band of Pomo Indians.

AB 2863 would regulate and legalize online poker in California. In return for agreeing to stay out as operators for internet poker, the horse racing industry would receive up to $60 million per fiscal year.

From the OnLinePokerReport:

The annual income appropriated to California’s horse racing industry would fall into three categories. Purses would receive 95.4 percent of the taxes generated by online poker each fiscal year. The retirement fund for California jockeys would receive 2.3 percent. Pensions for general racing employees would also receive 2.3 percent of the funds supplied to the racing industry through online poker.

While the horse racing industry was apparently placated by the promises of support, disputes between the various Native American groups over what to do with so-called “bad actors,” (companies who accepted or facilitated wagers from American customers after Dec. 31, 2006) led to reports that Assemblyman Adam Gray had shelved his plans for bringing AB 2863 up for a vote.

Exposés in the New York Times and other publications have revealed an ugly side to the world of horse racing. Drugs and cruelty to the animals continue to exist, despite claims to the contrary. The blinders of business acumen don’t allow for backers of the sport to see its corrupt and cruel reality.

Here’s how Andrew Cohen put it in the Atlantic, a couple of years back:

There are essentially three types of people in horse racing. There are the crooks who dangerously drug or otherwise abuse their horses, or who countenance such conduct from their agents, and who then dare the industry to come catch them. Then there are the dupes who labor under the fantasy that the sport is broadly fair and honest. And there are those masses in the middle—neither naive nor cheaters but rather honorable souls—who know the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but who still don’t do all they can to fix the problem.

As is true in the case of SeaWorld, a slow but steady drumbeat of protest over the exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes is perculating its way through the American consciousness.

On many weekends this summer a handful of local activists have walked a picket line at Del Mar. They’ll be there on Labor Day for the last races of the season, remembering the horses who died this year.


This is an excerpt from Doug Porter’s column at our associated site, the San Diego Free Press.


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