So Del Mar decided to make a wider turf course in an attempt to attract the Breeder’s Cup. Apparently that was what took them past the finish line. 2017 is BC at the beach.
But something went wrong in the first two weeks of the meeting. Four horses have been put down after racing on the turf. Here is Del Mar’s statement:
“Del Mar is deeply saddened by the loss of Thoroughbred lives we have experienced at the track since the start of our season. Four of those losses have come on our new turf course. Despite that, we continue to have the utmost confidence in the course, as do our partners in this race meet — the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the California Thoroughbred Trainers, the Jockeys’ Guild and the California Horse Racing Board – all of whom have expressed that confidence to us today.
Nonetheless, as a precautionary measure, Del Mar will shift the two turf races scheduled for Sunday’s card off the course and run them instead on our main track. Additionally, we will move up scheduled maintenance on the turf course to Saturday evening instead of the Sunday evening schedule that had been planned. The entire course will be aerated and watered starting on Sunday. Track crews will work on it for the next three days and, in the end, reposition the inner rail at the 18-foot position.”
Track officials feel that they are adjusting on the side of caution with these moves. They are meant to give all parties involved – riders, trainers, owners and fans – assurance that everything possible is being done to ensure the track’s first priority, which is safety of horses and riders. Those same officials feel strongly that when racing resumes on Wednesday, the turf course will perform in a positive fashion.
So this is my interpretation of the statement.
Yeah, four horses broke down, but we don’t think it was the turf course. But, we realize that if another horse breaks down before we move the deck chairs around, we’ll have a shitstorm to deal with so we’re going to take racing off the turf.
Del Mar will aerate the course first. The purpose of aeration is to allow nutrients and water to get to the roots of the grass, and it is often used when soil is highly compacted.
So either the turf course was as hard as a rock, or they just had to do something and aeration was the first thing that popped up. I’ve written earlier about turf racing in America. The courses drain poorly, resulting in races being removed from the turf after a rain. Turf courses, other than at a few tracks, are really the stepchildren of the racetrack.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that California turf courses look like putting greens, while eastern turf courses look like the rough.
I’m going to flat out say this. Turf racing is inherently safer than dirt racing. The ground is softer, and as I’ve mentioned in my previous blog, horses don’t slide on the turf like they do on the dirt or synthetic. The roots of the grass stabilize the stride. Del Mar took great pains to issue a statement that said nothing was wrong – they just figured they’d come down on the side of caution. Let’s face it. To admit your turf course is unsafe really screams that the maintenance folks have done something wrong, either the wrong type of grass or poor maintenance practices. And if that is the case, somebody might just scream negligence.
I mean, assuming there was something wrong with the turf course.
The other thing Del Mar is doing is repositioning the rail. I assume this is so that horses are racing on the older, more mature part of the turf course and the turns aren’t quite as sharp. But again, if they think the rail was not in a good place, they are in essence admitting there was a flaw in the track.
There is another possibility of course. It just happened to be Del Mar’s bad luck to have four horses ready to break down racing on the track. From the reading I’ve done, catastrophic injury is usually not a random event. Horses have multiple injuries which over time pile up until one day – snap! I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone say, maybe it’s the trainers who aren’t diagnosing these injuries, or maybe they are just filling their horses up with anti-inflammatories and analgesics to keep them on the track. As long as we are speculating, it’s at least as much a possibility as poor track maintenance.
I’m going to mention one other thing. If you are a veteran jockey, you have to know when horses are not traveling well because the course is not right. You have to feel the difference. Nobody else has the perspective of the person sitting on the back of a charging thoroughbred. Did the jockeys ever say anything? Hey, the course is hard as a rock. Or, my horse is sliding all over the place. I’m pretty tired of jockeys refusing to speak up for fear that a petty trainer will take them off a mount, or they’ll get a reputation as a complainer. I have to believe if ALL the jockeys adopt the same attitude the concerns related to trainers would be obviated. Jockeys are flat out risking their bodies every time they ride, and if they believe the course is some way or another “unsafe” they need to speak up.
We all want it to be the track because that is an easy fix. Pull some plugs, soak the grass, move the rail and we’re good to go. But we absolutely have to know if it is the horses. I understand that there are necropsies scheduled. I hope they are thorough in describing not only the horses’ injuries, but what other contributing factors may have been at work. Mostly I hope they make those results public. The people risking their money on thoroughbreds have the absolute right to know why horses they bet on couldn’t finish a race.
Tracks are hesitant to ever criticize owners or trainers. They are the life blood of the business (well, except for all the bettors who pay the bills). But sooner or later this boil is going to burst. For every Pletcher or Baffert that can afford to treat their horses like house pets, there are dozens of marginal trainers who have to find ways to keep horses running in order to pay the bills. I just have a hard time believing that the blame isn’t proportioned in some way between the jockeys, trainers and track maintenance people. Do I know the proportion? I wish I did.
But, it can’t be as simple as, it’s 100% the track. Let’s not just make a few simple changes and expect that is the end of breakdowns. Let’s really dig into the problem and find some answers, even if they are the hard answers.