Amid the debate about the safety of thoroughbred racing in Southern California, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club could point to one fact: It had not suffered a single racing fatality in 2019.
That changed dramatically in the span of 90 minutes on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 10.
On the third day of Del Mar’s fall race meeting, a 3-year-old gelding named Ghost Street suffered a front leg injury in the third race on the turf course and was vanned off the track. Veterinarians determined he had to be euthanized.
Three races later, 3-year-old colt Prayer Warrior was pulled up on the far turn of the dirt track and appeared to have a serious front leg injury. He was vanned off and shortly after 3:30 p.m. the daughter of trainer Jeff Metz tweeted the injury was fatal.
Ghost Street, who had three previous career starts, was running in an allowance optional claiming race with a $52,000 purse and had yet to win. Prayer Warrior, who had three career victories, was competing in his eighth career race.
The horse ambulance also was called out after the second race, when 5-year-old mare Princess Dorian was pulled up at the top of the stretch with a front leg injury.
Lead track veterinarian Dr. Dana Stead examined the horse, a leg splint was applied, and DMTC announced that Princess Dorian was transported to the equine hospital at San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall.
On Sunday evening, the track said the horse received X-rays and that her prognosis was “improving.” Owner Erik Johnson, a defenseman with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, told Jay Privman of The Daily Racing Form that the mare would have surgery with her either becoming a broodmare or just living out her life in a pasture.
In a statement released Sunday evening, PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said, “These latest deaths must be criminally investigated immediately. PETA has repeatedly asked that all racing be suspended until new regulations and measures to stop the carnage can be put into place.”
This was the first time since Jan. 4 at Santa Anita that two horses died in racing on the same day. Tank Team and Unusual Angel were euthanized in separate incidents during the same race.
On July 19, two horses died at Del Mar when they collided in training.
On Sunday, DMTC issued a statement expressing that it was “deeply sorry” for the deaths of the horses while extending condolences to their owners, trainers and caretakers.
Stead said Ghost Street and Prayer Warrior suffered the same injuries — fractures to both sesamoid bones in one leg. The bones are about the size of walnuts and are comparable to a human ankle. They support the entire weight of the horse, and fractures to the bones are among the most common in thoroughbreds.
“Unfortunately, that’s probably the most difficult to fix,” Stead said. “They are too small and we haven’t designed a metal strong enough to support a 1,000-pound animal.”
The racing death is the first at Del Mar since the 2018 fall meet, when there was one fatality.
Del Mar was the safest major track in America last year, according to the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, but it has run its most recent meets under intense scrutiny following 37 horse deaths at Santa Anita since late December.
Thirty horses died at Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet, and seven perished in the recent fall meet. The sport suffered a high-profile death on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita, when Mongolian Groom broke down in the nationally televised Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Following the death at the Breeders Cup, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called for the suspension of racing at Santa Anita and said she would work with California Gov. Gavin Newsom “to look at all options to protect racehorses and increase transparency at racetracks.”
“If the horse racing industry is unwilling to treat these magnificent creatures humanely,” Feinstein said, “it has no business operating in the United States.”
Newsom called on the California Racing Board (CHRB) to take additional action after adding safety measures in the spring and summer.
In a joint effort over the spring and summer, the CHRB, Del Mar and Santa Anita made extensive changes to safety protocols. Those included a five-member panel to review all race entrants, a change in medication practices, increases in out-of-competition testing, and greater scrutiny of horses by additional veterinarians.
In its statement on Sunday, DMTC said, “Del Mar has implemented a series of industry-leading safety and welfare reforms over the past several years. We will continue our commitment to safety at the highest levels for our horses and riders.”
Prominent Southern California trainer Peter Miller experienced the highs and lows of racing on Sunday. His horse, Leucothea, captured the Desi Arnaz Stakes, but minutes after celebrating in the winner’s circle, he spoke of his sadness for the horses lost.
“It’s always sad. You hate to see it anywhere,” Miller, of Encinitas, said. “I think the industry has done a very good job in the past six months since the spike at Santa Anita, and we have to strive to do better.
“But you’re never going to end it all. It’s like saying there’s never going to be a crash in auto racing or there’s never going to be an injury in sports. It’s unfortunate. It’s the worst part of game.”
Miller said he fears for the future of racing in California.
“I think it’s gotten out of hand — the politicization of it,” he said. “The politicians are using it as a way to pound their chests. We have far, far greater problems in this country and in this state than horse racing. But it’s an easy target for the politicians, and they love an easy target.”
— Tod Leonard is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune