Del Mar’s 2020 race meetings successful in business, safety

Horses on the track this summer at Del Mar.
Horses will not be on the track again at Del Mar until next summer.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Betting handle is up despite fewer dates; one racing fatality combined in summer and fall meetings


What no fans saw this year were two banner meetings for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

“It’s been an amazing year,” DMTC President and COO Josh Rubinstein said Sunday, Nov. 29, at the end of Del Mar’s seventh fall meeting.

“We went from not knowing if we’d even race this year to our second-greatest year ever.”

Bettors wagered $662 million on Del Mar racing this year over 42 race dates. The record of $677 million was set in 2015 when Del Mar was open for 60 days (40 in the summer, 20 in the fall).

The 15-day fall meeting finished with a total handle of $195.9 million — a 33 percent increase from 2019. The summer meeting saw an 8 percent increase despite fewer dates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We will be profitable this year,” said Rubinstein — despite the track operating without fans and minus the revenue from admissions, parking, concessions and other sales.

And that’s only half the story.

Del Mar completed the fall season without a horse fatality either in racing or training. During the summer, there were four fatalities with only one of those coming in a race — possibly positioning Del Mar to be named the sport’s safest facility for a third straight year.

“We’re proud to say we created a new definition of track safety,” said Rubinstein. “Horse safety has been very important to us. This year, with COVID-19, we worked hard to protect the safety of everyone on the grounds and in the communities around us.”

It began with the “DMTC COVID-19 Operational Plan,” conceived and drawn up over two months while other sports ground to a halt. The 10-page, single-spaced plan was authored by Ann Hall, DMTC’s senior vice president for operations and administration, and Kim Jacobson, director of risk management.

Scripps Health chief medical officer Dr. Ghazala Sharieff worked on the plan. And San Diego County officials spent several days going over it at the track with Del Mar officials.

“Going back to the beginning of the pandemic, I was not sure we were going to race,” said Rubinstein. “Then, not only did we have a plan, we had tremendous buy-in from all our stakeholders — trainers, vets, grooms, exercise riders and other workers on the backside and jockeys and track personnel on the front side.”

There were problems. The second weekend of racing was canceled when 15 jockeys and other workers tested positive for COVID-19. But there were no cases after Aug. 5 and only one during the fall meeting.

“Everyone took responsibility,” said Rubinstein. “Everyone understood all our livelihoods were at stake.”

As for the racing, Del Mar added races with summer programs ending in primetime in the east after other tracks had closed.

During the summer, online in-state betting on Del Mar jumped 130 percent from 2019 and the out-of-state total jumped 70 percent. During the fall meeting, those numbers were 136 percent and 110 percent.

— Bill Center is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union Tribune