Column: Del Mar sets standard for racetrack safety

Opening day at the Del Mar Racetrack in 2020
Opening Day at Del Mar last July 17 began the safest racing run of any major track in America.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

New report from The Jockey Club shows racetrack was safest among major facilities in 2020


Del Mar has piled proof upon proof that it sets the gold standard for safety among major horse-racing tracks in America.

That they’ve done it again, like a satisfying and significant broken record, shouts from barn roofs that the commitment to protecting horses where the turf meets the surf remains not solely a priority, but a non-negotiable expectation.

The release Tuesday, March 30, of the most recent equine database report from The Jockey Club — showing one racing-related fatality from 3,417 runners in 2020, the north star of the industry’s stars at 0.29 percent per 1,000 starts — underscores the commitment Del Mar continues to feed, water and shape.

Take a bow.

“It’s not just what we’ve done, but what the industry has done,” CEO Joe Harper said. “A lot of the credit goes to the horsemen and trainers themselves, changing an age-old feeling that they sometimes had about not leaving money on the table.

“The game needed to change — and that happened.”

There’s a decent amount of “I’d like to thank the Academy” as Harper shares the optimistic spoils of the sport’s encouraging trendline. The truth: Since a catastrophic meet in 2016, when 17 horses died, no organization has pledged to do more and produced results like Del Mar.

Heads up, NFL. Pay attention, NCAA. On the thorniest matters of our sports time — from concussions to amateur athlete compensation and gender equity — words matter little. Work and real results do.

“(Maximizing safety) is probably more important for Del Mar than almost anyone,” Harper said. “When you look at the slice of people who come out to the Del Mar in the summer, that might be their first trip to the race track and maybe the only race track they’ve ever been to.

“They’re there for the atmosphere and the party. They don’t want see a horse die any more than we do. So yes, it means a lot.”

This is not the moment to debate zero-allowance viewpoints from animal-rights advocates or counterpoints from those in the industry about the jobs racing leverages to buoy marginalized communities.

The truth of that, as with most things, routinely lies somewhere in the middle, beyond the passionate polarization. Del Mar’s drumbeat related to safety has grown into something an entire sport can applaud and emulate.

Last May, I admonished the track about straying from safety-related transparency. After that, among their choices that led to safer racing were those listed as part of a larger 23-point plan — including increased veterinary scrutiny, toughening medication policies and race-surface modifications. That good-faith contract with the public demands vigilant nurturing.

Attitudes and conversations drove change at Del Mar, as well.

Harper recalled sitting on a pony with one of the track’s outriders, who pointed out a subtle “tell” with a horse’s left-hind quarters area. Noticing something seemed off required a trained, veteran eye. It became the kind of culture that’s the equivalent of, “See something, say something.”

To its credit, Del Mar listened.

“It’s the little things, too,” Harper said.

Del Mar’s injury rate consistently has been the lowest or near the lowest in the nation over the last three years. In 2018, the rate of fatality each 1,000 starts stood at .79. The year after, it dropped to .62 before falling yet again in 2020.

The national average last year, according to The Jockey Club, stood at 1.41 — the lowest since data of this kind was first collecting in 2009.

There’s always more work to be done in an industry accustomed to dodging its share of deserved and undeserved slings and arrows, Harper noted.

“This isn’t just a Del Mar issue or a Santa Anita issue,” he said. “It takes everyone.”

In 2019, Del Mar became a founding member of the national Thoroughbred Safety Coalition. The group pushed for things like the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act, which Congress signed into law earlier this year.

This is not a finish line, as Del Mar wisely understands. The track continues to show it refuses to sit on its hands — or hooves. That assuredly will continue when the track’s popular summer meet begins its 31-day run July 16.

That bow? They earned it..

— Bryce Miller is a sports columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune