SAN DIEGO -- Del Mar Thoroughbred Club staged the safest horse racing among major tracks in the country in 2018, but after a recent meet with 30 horse deaths at Santa Anita Park, Del Mar's leadership hardly felt like it could go about business as usual.
For the 36-day summer meet that begins July 17, Del Mar is adding a number of safety and oversight measures to those it instituted two years ago following difficult 2016 summer and fall racing seasons in which a total of 23 horses died in racing or training.
In the last two years, Del Mar's horse deaths dropped to eight in 2017 (five in summer, three in fall) and seven in '18 (six in summer, one in fall). In a 2018 report from the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, Del Mar ranked best in safety among nearly two dozen self-reporting tracks, with a rate of 0.79 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts -- or fewer than half the national average for deaths (1.68).
The seven fatalities last year, Del Mar officials said, came among more than 76,000 "high-speed" runs that included racing and training. Three of the deaths came during races, among 3,812 starters.
"The bar is pretty high," Del Mar President and COO Josh Rubenstein said. "But given what's gone on at Santa Anita, we've got to do even more."
Among the additional protocols at Del Mar this summer will be a five-person entry review panel; medication reform that changes the timing of administering drugs before workouts and races; increases in out-of-competition testing; enhanced stable security; more veterinary supervision for morning workouts, and a ban on the use of riding crops during workouts.
"We think these are good rules. The horsemen have accepted these reforms," said Tom Robbins, Del Mar executive vice president of racing and industry relations. "There's not another state that has these same rules with these changes. We're at the forefront in American racing. We see these as positives."
The five-member review panel will be in place for the first time at Del Mar after the California Horse Racing Board formed one -- at the request of California Gov. Gavin Newsom -- ' for the final two weekends at Santa Anita. Subsequently, a total of 38 horses were either scratched or denied entry to races at the panel's recommendations.
A panel currently is overseeing the thoroughbred meet at Los Alamitos, and the Del Mar panel will consist of CHRB Equine Medical Director Dr. Rick Arthur, two CHRB veterinarians, CHRB chief steward Darrel McHargue, and CHRB safety steward Luis Jauregui.
Unique to the Del Mar panel is that horses will be evaluated once the race entries are drawn, rather than making decisions about horses in pre-entry, as was done at Santa Anita and currently at Los Alamitos.