The relief Del Mar race officials felt after an injury-free opening day Wednesday, July 17, lasted fewer than 12 hours.
Two horses died Thursday morning, July 18, in a freak training accident at the track, casting a pall over a promising start a day earlier when 88 horses ran without apparent injury.
When a horse unseated its workout rider, ran the wrong way and created a catastrophic collision, it thrust Del Mar back into a searing spotlight focused on industry safety.
“It’s like a wrong-way driver on the interstate,” Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper said Thursday, July 18, during an afternoon news conference at Del Mar. “It’s like the guy took the wrong lane by mistake. It’s just an accident — and it’s a horrible accident. And fortunately, they’re very, very rare.
“But in light of all of what’s been going on at Santa Anita, it certainly gets a lot more attention.”
The incident occurred about 6:40 a.m., when a 2-year-old named Charge a Bunch shook jockey Geovanni Franco, spun and sprinted against traffic in the opposite direction. He collided with Carson Valley, an unraced 3-year-old trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert who was just completing a timed workout.
Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine who works full time for the California Horse Racing Board, said a clinical examination revealed both horses suffered cervical fractures — more commonly known as a broken neck. Both died on the track, Arthur said.
Franco was not injured and rode as scheduled Thursday afternoon, July 18. He declined comment through a Del Mar spokesman. Jockey Assael Espinoza — who was riding Carson Valley — was transported to a local hospital and released.
“He’s OK. He got lucky,” said Brian Beach, Espinoza’s agent. “It’s just a mild sprain of the back.”
By all accounts, the accident had nothing to do with safety issues plaguing the sport — racing surfaces, medication usage, riding crops and more — yet dealt Del Mar a staggering blow at the onset of its summer schedule just the same.
This is the first major race meeting in Southern California since 30 horses died at Santa Anita between Dec. 26 and June 23.
“Usually, I’m not at a loss for words,” Harper said. “But I’ll tell you, (Thursday) morning was a tough one. For the past three years, Del Mar has tried to do everything we can to come with solutions for these horses being injured. We’ve come up with stuff that has seemed to work.
“… We’ve tried everything we can for three years to be the safest track in the country — and we pretty much got there. Then this happens.”
The accident occurred during a portion of the morning when only horses participating in timed workout sessions are on the track. Jockey Joe Talamo, who was riding another Baffert horse and was close to the collision, said the horse traveling the wrong way stayed tight to the rail. His riding group, which included Espinoza aboard Carson Valley, was moving at a brisk pace as it passed the spot on the track labeled the seven-eighths pole, before the first turn.
Talamo said he was about a length and a half back from a horse ridden by Victor Espinoza — Assael’s uncle who was badly injured here last summer when a horse he was working in the morning broke down. The workout group came along a pair of galloping horses just before the accident.
“All that horse (Charge a Bunch) could see was four horses in front of him,” Talamo said. “He didn’t know where to go really since he was on the rail. It literally sounded like a car crash. When I got past them and heard that sound, all I could do was pray for Asa (Espinoza). When you hear a sound like that, it’s not good.
“I’m glad he’s OK.”
Carlsbad horse owner and handicapper Jon Lindo, who had his back turned but clearly heard the collision 100 yards away, said “some people told me you could hear it back at the barns.”
Added Baffert: “The horse was going for Victor and at the last minute, he jumped and hit the other horse. Unbelievable.”
Necropsies will be performed on the horses to determine if there were any contributing factors, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the state’s Business Consumer Services and Housing Agency, which oversees the California Horse Racing Board.
“We don’t like to see that kind of thing happen at all, but I think it’s a bit different from a horse collapsing after a race,” Heimerich said.
A five-person panel, which began at the tail end of the Santa Anita season, continues to review the fitness of horses, and the process appears to be working so far, he said.
“We’ve already gone through some of the first races (at Del Mar) and we have done a couple scratches already,” Heimerich said, referring to withdrawals for races last Friday, July 19 and Saturday, July 20.
State Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) sponsored the bill signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month allowing the CHRB to suspend racing at tracks when dangerous conditions exist. He said in a statement, “We are continuing to look at ways to improve safety at California horse racing tracks. But at the same time, it’s hard to anticipate every calamity and we certainly couldn’t prevent a freak accident like this.”
Because of the obvious danger involved in a 1,000-pound animal running around without a rider, protocols are in place at Del Mar to alert those on the track about loose horses. A horn blows and evenly-spaced lights ringing the track blink red, alerting other riders until the horse can be brought under control. The devastating speed of the incident, however, did not allow time for those systems to be used.
Baffert watched as the horrifying scene unfolded.
“It happened so fast,” he said. “They were working from the gate, coming around and all of a sudden, I see this horse like hang a U(-turn). The horses, they never saw each other. It was just a freaky deal. I’m still pretty shook up about it.
“... It all happened in like 10 seconds. Some people yelled, but they had like a 3-second warning. It gives me chills thinking about it.”
Baffert said he had only witnessed a collision like this once in his long career, about 15 years ago in Kentucky. Del Mar’s Harper said in his 40 years of being around racing, “I’ve maybe seen three (incidents) this devastating. Nobody’s at fault here. It’s one of those freak things. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Carla Gaines, trainer of the unraced 2-year-old Charge a Bunch, declined comment but posted a statement on Twitter: “This morning Gaines Racing had a very unfortunate and freak training accident at Del Mar, the likes of which I have not experienced in over 30 years training race horses. … We are still in shock and grieving the loss of the horses, and my heart out to both of their owners, Bob (Baffert) and his team. We appreciate all those that continue to support us and our industry.”
Not all, however, support a sport facing increasing pressure and scrutiny.
Patrick Battuello, the founder of Horseracing Wrongs who monitors racing deaths nationally and has called for the abolishment of the sport, acknowledged that a two-horse collision is “not common at all.” But that, he argued, is irrelevant.
“The racing industry is already trying to dismiss this as a freak accident, something beyond their control,” Battuello said in a phone interview. “I don’t accept that. For me, it doesn’t matter where the horse dies, whether it’s on the track, back in the stall, or at the slaughter house. The bottom line is every dead horse is an industry casualty. The industry owns all of these dead horses.”
Del Mar limited time for questions during a 9-minute news conference, where Arthur – the equine medical expert who represents the CHRB – attempted to establish that the incident was indeed an accident.
“Young horses do silly things, whether you’re on the race track or whether you’re on the ranch,” he said. “Just like adolescent humans, they are more prone to accidents. We all recognize that a loose horse on the racetrack is a danger.”
Arthur acknowledged the chilling nature of the collision, however.
“It certainly was a traumatic event,” he said. “Two horses had a collision where both of them were moving at fairly high speed. We’re talking about animals over 1,000 pounds, so you can imagine the force involved.”
— Staff writers Kristina Davis and Tod Leonard and L.A. Times freelance writer John Cherwa contributed to this report.