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Opening Day At Del Mar: Remember The Horses

Racing is getting safer, but injuries still abound

Track officials all over are trying to make horse racing safer.
Photo by Ron Donoho

As you put on a fancy hat and head to Opening Day at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, remember these names: Mi Rey, Sovine, Madame Kiawah, Mad For Plaid, Peanut Ridge, I Want My Money, Maggie and Hopie, Insider, Pocosin’s Game Boy, Mr. Napper Tandy, Pauper’s Prize, Zetta’s Corridor and Endless Moon.These were the names of the 13 horses that died last year at Del Mar’s annual meet.


All were powerful animals that entered the track full of vigor, and limped off in excruciating pain and terror (or in Mad for Plaid’s case, dragged by a winch onto a tractor-pulled trailer), to be given a lethal injection.

Some argue that horse racing is a cruel and abusive sport, in which intelligent animals suffer and die for entertainment. Others who love the animals and the sport disagree, and are working to make racing safer for both horse and rider, addressing the problems inherent in competitions where millions of dollars are at stake, and theprimary participants can’t speak for themselves.

Critics allege current breeding practices result in horses that are bred for speed, not strength and endurance, resulting in fragile bones that break easily. In California, which has the most complete reporting and strictest racing criteria of any state, 759 horses were euthanized at race tracks from 2003 through 2005; in the 2008-2009 season that number totaled 320 race horses.

After 19 horses died there during the 2006 meet, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, like many others in the state, replaced its dirt track with Polytrack, a highly-touted synthetic, designed to reduce injuries. The results have been mixed. Although horse fatalities have slightly decreased from that disastrous year, 36 horses have died there in the three years since it was installed. However, nationwide numbers show that synthetic surfaces have decreased horse fatalities.

In a genuine effort to improve safety and performance, Del Mar Race Track recently hired Richard Tedesco as track manager. Known as the “guru” of engineered track surfaces, he comes to Del Mar after achieving success at Santa Anita, where only two horses were lost last year (out of 83 races). Del Mar is also working to limit the number of horses on the grounds, which can be up to 2,200 at any one time, a contributing factor to deaths and injuries during morning training.

According to the Associated Press, in 2008 (the latest year annual totals were available), U.S. state racing jurisdictions reported more than 1,200 horse deaths at thoroughbred race tracks, with similar totals for the previous five years. The equine injury database of the Jockey Club (the breed Registry for thoroughbred horses in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico), shows one of every 500 thoroughbred starts at North American race tracks last year resulted in a reported fatal injury. (The numbers are actually higher,since tracks in Arkansas, Michigan and Nebraska don’t record horse fatalities, only one track in Florida does, and other states, including Kentucky, don’t report fatal accidents that occur during training. In some places, those represent as much as a third of the total.)

Many in the industry heard a wake-up call in the high profile deaths of both Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2006, broke down in the Preakness Stakes that year and was euthanized several months later, and the filly Eight Belles, who finished second in the 2008 Derby, but sustained two broken ankles while jogging past the finish line and was euthanized, on the track, minutes later.

Critics of horse racing cite not only the deaths at the tracks during both racing and training, but the thousands of discarded thoroughbreds that fail to make enough money for their owners and end up at auction lots, headed for slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. According to the Humane Society of the U.S. and other organizations, estimates range upwards from 11,000 per year, a number which equals one third of the yearly crop of thoroughbred foals.

They are horses such as Ferdinand, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1986 and was slaughtered for horsemeat in Japan a few years later. Common slaughter victims also include foals of other breeds, sent to slaughterhouses for “pony skin” when only days old, who are born solely to start milk production in mares who then nurse race horse foals so that thoroughbred broodmares can be inseminated again to produce more commercially viable foals.

Horse slaughterhouses are banned in the U.S. and it is technically illegal in California to sell horses for slaughter.

The Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue, founded in 2008 by horsewoman Caroline Betts, buys and rescues ex-racehorses bound for slaughter, from local auction lots. Some horses are brought to the lots with Jockey Club papers, but all can be traced by the lip tattoo every horse has. SCTR has identified several of its rescued horses as having run at Del Mar.

Says Betts, “It seems beneath the dignity of these magnificent horses - the star athletes of the 'Sport of Kings' - that they be disposed of so unceremoniously, and apparently no amount of anti-slaughterstate law or anti-slaughter racetrack policy is sufficient to prevent the practice in California."

Local race horse owner and breeder Madeline Auerbach couldn’t agree more. She founded CARMA, California Retirement Management Account, to raise funds for retired California race horses after one of her favorite horses, Lenny from Malibu, ended his career, and Auerbach had great difficulty finding a place for him to live out his days. Through her efforts, the California Horse Racing Board has agreed to allow a .03% deduction from winning purses (owners can choose to opt out) to fund racehorse retirement. In 2009, more than $300,000 was raised. On July 24, the charity will hold a fundraising poker tournament, “Poker in Paradise” at the Del Mar Hilton.

As for Opening Day? It’s all about hats and partying, and not enough about horses like Mi Rey, who gave his all last year but didn’t make it through Opening Day alive.