After Santa Anita horse deaths, uncertainty clouds the Del Mar summer racing season

John Cherwa, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Horse Racing

LOS ANGELES -- To understand how this year has been like no other in California horse racing, look at the cover of the Del Mar Owners-Trainers-Jockeys 2019 source book.

There in the bottom left corner is a picture of trainer Jerry Hollendorfer giving instructions to a jockey, something he can no longer do since he is currently not allowed to run horses at the track.

Uncertainty seems to be the theme as Del Mar opens its 80th summer racing season on Wednesday, inheriting enough baggage to fill a small airport.

The industry is still wrestling with the status of Hollendorfer, a Hall of Fame member, to determine if he can race horses at Del Mar after being slapped with a ban from Santa Anita and other tracks owned by the Stronach Group. He was banned by the ownership group after four of his horses died at Santa Anita and two at Golden Gate in Northern California. Currently he has no stall space at Del Mar.

-- The sport is enduring national scrutiny after 30 horses died during the Santa Anita meeting, putting everyone on alert that racing could be in jeopardy if the number of deaths don't subside.

-- There also is a greatly reduced horse population because of the problems at Santa Anita, causing many trainers to ship their horses out of state. It has already caused a reduction in the number of races, and if the situation worsens it could cut the meeting from five days a week to four.


"There seems to be a lot more on the line because of Santa Anita," said Joe Harper, Del Mar's longtime chief executive. "But when you think about it, that's not bad. We need to be a little nervous. It makes us go an extra step or two."

As tracks go, Del Mar is at the head of the class when it comes to horse and rider safety. Last year, it averaged 0.79 deaths per 1,000 starts, the lowest of any major track in the country. The national average is 1.68. The recently completed Santa Anita meeting was 3.17. Those numbers count only racing deaths, not training fatalities.

It's not as if Del Mar hasn't found itself in a similar situation as Santa Anita. In 2016, 23 horses died either racing or training at Del Mar in a much shorter time than at Santa Anita. Its death rate that year was 3.01.

"I think it would be good if we can match last year's numbers," said Tom Robbins, the track's executive vice president of racing. "But, obviously we are striving for fewer fatalities, both morning and afternoon. Our ultimate goal is to get to zero. We're going to do our best."


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