By Kim Robson:
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is known as one of America’s most scenic racetracks. It is located on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in the seaside city of Del Mar, California, 20 miles north of San Diego. Known for its slogan, “Where The Turf Meets The Surf,” the track was built by a partnership headed by Bing Crosby, and has been operating since 1937, when Crosby stood at the gate on opening day to greet fans.
In 2007, at a cost of approximately $9 million dollars, Del Mar replaced its outer dirt track with a synthetic Polytrack brand surface. Polytrack is a mixture of silica sand, recycled synthetic fibers (like carpet and spandex), recycled rubber and PVC. In cold climates, the mixture may also include jelly cable (the plastic insulation from copper wire). The entire mixture is coated with wax. It is said to provide a cushioning effect that reduces risk of injury, improves equine footing, and has excellent energy return (bounciness).
Since racing season began on July 17th, a shocking number of racehorses have died at Del Mar. Several horses died of musculoskeletal injuries from falls on the turf (grass) course, one collapsed from a heart attack while racing on the synthetic track, and two died during morning training. Compared to 2013, when four horses died, this year’s death toll stands at twelve (as of this writing), including a horrifying spate of nine in as many days.
The inner turf track is mainly to blame, but the Polytrack has been involved also. Del Mar had just renovated the turf track the previous year, widening the course and softening a curve to allow more horses to compete in turf races. It had been 50 years since the turf had been changed, and Del Mar may have been in a rush since it is scheduled to host the Breeders Cup in 2017.
Chattering Gambler died of heart attack, becoming the tenth horse to die since the season opened. “It was very sad. I watched as they, they [sic] put the tarps up and euthanized the horse right there on the field,” said a fan.
Now Del Mar says they’re making changes. The turf course has been temporarily shut down while officials aerate the grass, soften it with water, and consult turf experts. The synthetic course now has been treated with a fresh coating of wax. And Del Mar president Joe Harper has announced his intention to return to traditional dirt for the 2015 racing season. The problem isn’t the surface; it’s the lack of comparable synthetic surfaces in Southern California. Santa Anita Park experimented with a synthetic surface but then returned to dirt, and Hollywood Park, which had a synthetic surface, is now closed.
Track officials and experts say that the problem may not be the tracks at all. Veterinarian Dana Stead blames the “rush to get a horse here, in combination with the pressure, as well as the high purses, some horses may be running that aren’t quite ready.”
Rick Baedeker, Director of the California Horse Racing Board, discusses racing safety protocols and the measures the track is taking to fix the turf track in this interview. The Club also is consulting with renowned surfaces expert Dr. Michael (Mick) Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, in conjunction with their own turf superintendent.
As well, the track will conduct enhanced pre-race inspections of all racehorses, something the track and state veterinarians currently do only on racing days. All racehorses go through four different veterinary inspections — first in the morning, then on three other occasions throughout the day — before racing in the afternoon. In addition, turf sprints, which damage the grass surface more, will be eliminated.
There is nothing quite as thrilling as horse racing. But this sport, like bullfighting, has been running out of public support over recent years. Animal rights activists would love to see horse racing go the way of dogfighting. These magnificent yet fragile animals are pushed beyond their natural limits biologically, physically, chemically and emotionally. They’re rushed to race young, are finished by the age of three, and typically live brutally short lives. All in the name of fame and money. This shocking recent seriesof deaths serves only to illuminate the need for us all to re-examine this ancient sport and perhaps leave it behind for history to claim.