DEL MAR, Calif. -- Del Mar's summer of discontent began with a sadly fitting omen.
On opening day, July 17, 11 horses left the starting gate for the one-mile feature, the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes. It was the first day of the 75th season of thoroughbred racing at the seaside track, started and made famous by Bing Crosby.
The 42,021 on hand, putting on the now traditional fashion show and alcohol-consuming extravaganza that had given the track the place-to-be image, were focused on the horses, heading to the first turn.
Gary Brinson's starting gate crew did what it always does. In less than 90 seconds, it had to hook up the 22,000-pound gate blocking much of the width of the track to a tractor and tow it out of the way. The horses would be in a pack running for home at 40-45 mph. For Brinson's crew, this was routine. They had done this thousands of times.
Except, this time, the steel bar that connects the tractor to the gate broke. Unheard of. Never happens.
If the gate wasn't moved, the consequences could be catastrophic. Adrenaline kicked in. About 17 men, all in full realization and full panic, somehow moved the gate themselves.
Mike Smith, a Hall of Fame jockey who has become the quiet leader of this prestigious Southern California jockey colony, took favored Enterprise wide around the final turn and out-kicked the field, rocketing over the spot where the gate had been.
Few noticed. It was mostly just a note.
Joe Harper, the charismatic 71-year-old chief executive of the track since 1978, didn't notice either.
"I saw Gary Brinson a little later," Harper said, "and his face was ashen. That's when I heard how close we had come to disaster."
Little did he know the ordeal was not over. Still may not be. Symbolically, the close call had occurred on Del Mar's new turf course, and that grass layout was to be the scene of much turmoil in the weeks ahead.
Last weekend was the midway point of the meeting. There have been 12 documented serious incidents and 10 deaths of horses. Six incidents happened on the turf course, usually the safer race surface at any track.
It actually began before opening day. On July 13, a horse named Corlett Drive, in training, suffered a fatal heart attack. Then, on opening day, Kokaltash finished third in a turf race and broke down after crossing the line.
Quickly came fateful Thursday and Friday, July 24 and 25.
On Thursday, Mont Saint Michel was found dead in his stall. Then, in morning training on the poly track, Dance With Fate, sixth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, bolted into an outside fence when a bridle broke. He injured his leg so badly he couldn't be saved.
The next day, Yes She's Unusual broke down racing on the turf and Longview Drive went down racing on the main poly track.
It continued. The next day, Lil Swiss Echo broke down on the turf and caused a three-horse spill, followed by another breakdown in the ninth race on the turf by J Kat.
After that, Del Mar shut down a turf course that, despite all the incidents, had been drawing general acceptance, if not praise.
Harper was uneasy with his own decision.
"We were starting to do things based on the press we were getting," he said, "rather than on reality."
The reality was that, though the turf course seemed a bit harder than others, it had passed all the technical tests with more than sufficient margin of error. Among the supporters of the surface were Smith and Jim Cassidy, current president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers.
Smith, interviewed dozens of times on the matter, always said the same thing. The turf is fine.
Cassidy said: "I've had no problem with either surface. The turf is not a forgiving course. Maybe when they aerated, they could have gone deeper. But everybody loves this place, and these guys (Del Mar officials) really care."
Harper said he visits the jockey room two or three times a day.
"I plead with them," he said, "to tell me anything they see, that they don't like, that bothers them. I've heard nothing."
The day the turf course was shut down the first time, July 27, Chilled Mousse broke down training on the poly track. Three days later, Flag Man was hurt in a race on the turf. The next day, July 31, a claimer named Serious went down on the turf.
This time, Harper and his team shut the turf track down for a week of racing days for more watering down and aerating.
"That really hurt attendance," Harper says. "The word got out that we had canceled racing on the turf course and that got translated on several TV stations around here that we had canceled racing."
Racing returned to the turf Saturday. Three races were run with no incidents. The feature was the $150,000 La Jolla Handicap, and there was Smith, again aboard Enterprising, charging down the home stretch to victory. There were two more turf races Sunday, including the $250,000 John Mabee Stakes. No incidents in either.
But even during the second turf shutdown, Del Mar did not escape the kind of incident that turns a sport of beauty and athleticism into one of ugliness and horror.
On Aug. 2, Chattering Gambler collapsed near the finish line in a race on the poly track.
"It was the third time I had ridden him," said veteran jockey Aaron Gryder. "The first time, we had lost by a neck, and the next time, we won.
"I asked him about the three-eighths pole and there wasn't the usual response. When I realized he wasn't his usual self, I thought maybe it just wasn't his day, and so I started easing him up.
"When he was almost pulled up, he went down."
A collapse like that, directly in front of the main grandstand, prompts many to swear off ever returning. It also fuels the desire in groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to continue their anti-racing efforts.
Gryder jumped off as the horse collapsed, then lay across his neck, petting him, talking to him.
"It was breaking my heart," he said. "If you lay on their neck, it helps keep them from trying to get up.
"I love these animals. Everything good in my life has come from them."
The ambulance arrived, along with the big screen meant to shield those in attendance from the scene. From the press box, the screen shielded nothing.
At the moment, Chattering Gambler is the final entrant on the 2014 Del Mar incident list. It reads, 10 horses dead: Corlett Drive, Kokaltash, Yes She's Unusual, Longview Drive, Lil Swiss Echo, Mont Saint Michel, J Kat, Chilled Mousse, Dance With Fate and Chattering Gambler. Two horses alive after surgery: Flag Man and Serious.
Harper doesn't so much watch races now as peek and hold his breath. He remains a man with movie-star carriage -- his grandfather was Cecil B. DeMille -- and a charming sense of humor, even in these darker times at his track.
Always clever, ever quotable, he watched his sport start to lose traction with the public years ago, when off-track betting started, helping on-track attendance dry up.
"When that happened," he said, "I told people I've never made so much money and I was never so lonely counting it."
He once spoke to a class of racetrack management students at the University of Arizona and told them: "I don't know what to tell you. We've totally screwed it (racing) up and now you guys have to fix it."
Somehow, try as it might, racing manages to keep screwing it up.
One of the reasons Del Mar put in the new turf course is because the track is a good place for a Breeders' Cup, which it will host in 2017. The old turf course wasn't wide enough to handle the 14-horse fields of the Breeders' Cup, so $4 million later, Del Mar has a new one. Plus this trouble.
Racing often feels like a bus full of people with nobody in the driver's seat. Del Mar's summer has already had more than its share of turmoil.
Even before the near-disaster at the starting gate, Del Mar had tried to keep some of the glow alive from California Chrome's two-third's run to the Triple Crown. Once it was determined that Chrome wouldn't run here Aug. 24 in the $750,000 Grade I Pacific Classic, Del Mar's marketing department asked if the horse might be available for an appearance. It envisioned a short trip down the freeway from Los Alamitos and a parade on the track for the fans. Del Mar would pay for that.
One of Chrome's owners, Perry Martin, told Del Mar it would take $50,000 for Chrome to come to Del Mar and told U-T San Diego reporter Ed Zieralski, "I bought the horse to run him, not to parade him."
The good of the sport had yielded to the greed of the sport.
In addition to the dying horses, Del Mar has had two huge thunderstorms at a place that almost never gets them in the summer.
It has had an owners' boycott of a race because one of the starters, Masochistic, tested positive for a tranquilizer at 40 times the permissible limit after a race at Santa Anita, where he ran poorly. In his next race, on Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs, Masochistic won by 14 lengths. David Frankham and Brian Carmody, owners of Smogcutter, boycotted the July 31 race, which Masochistic won.
Frankham and Carmody boycotted because Masochistic's trainer, A.C. Avila, hadn't been suspended for the tranquilizer overdose. Avila, the ninth-leading trainer here, said the dosage had been a mistake.
Last week, a trailer parked in the Del Mar barn area caught fire with a 7-year-old boy inside. Longtime track worker Dave Martinez rescued the boy.
A week ago, it was announced that Kent Desormeaux, leading rider at Del Mar, had been fined $1,000 for failing a Breathalyzer test June 26 at Santa Anita.
And the beat goes on.
Attendance is flat. Betting is down 6 percent overall, and more than that on-track.
"If you see lightning in the distance," Harper said, "don't stand too close to me."
As Harper paced in the paddock before the first turf race Saturday, after a week off that surface, the loudspeaker played the ever-present Bing Crosby, crooning about turf meeting surf at old Del Mar.
"Bet he never had to worry about this stuff," Harper grumbled.
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