Column: Del Mar makes $250,000 investment to safeguard racetrack from COVID-19 concerns

Del Mar executives Josh Rubinstein, left, and Joe Harper, center, speak with trainer Clifford Sise during morning workouts.
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club President and COO Josh Rubinstein (left) and CEO Joe Harper (center) talk with trainer Clifford Sise during morning workouts Monday, June 29. Del Mar’s opening day is set for July 10.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Track hired a response team, added washing stations, increased signage and communication as opening looms July 10


Approach the backside barns entrance at Del Mar racetrack and workers in a health screening tent wait to take temperatures, conduct symptom surveys and issue daily, color-coded wristbands.

More than 50 additional hand washing and sanitizing stations dot buildings as a newly hired COVID-19 response team walks the grounds to observe adherence to mask-wearing rules.

Public-address announcements of safety protocols ring out hourly, track-wide, in English and Spanish. Signs hammering home the message, 125 in all, do the same. A text messaging system in both languages relays requirements and updates, as well.

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has invested nearly $250,000 to fight an invisible enemy that will cost the track, at a minimum, $17 million in lost revenue from concerts, tickets, concession sales and more for its summer meet that lurches to life without fans July 10.

All people who enter Del Mar Racetrack have their temperature checked at entry points.
All people who enter Del Mar Racetrack have their temperature checked at entry points. The opening day of racing is July 10.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This, Del Mar President Josh Rubinstein said, is the cost of doing business during a global pandemic.

“That’s what 2020 is about — survival,” he said.

In addition to protecting people from the spread of coronavirus, Del Mar is safeguarding its fragile bottom line. Running — in some way, in any way, fans or not — offers a temporary bridge over troubled health and financial waters.

That’s because 90 percent of wagering at Del Mar comes from off-site sources, such as off-track betting locations and mobile apps.

So, the show must go on to house an anticipated backstretch population of more than 1,800 horses and the essential workers necessary to care for them. Restricted access from the start — potentially without owners, for context — means the track can trim more than 1,100 daily workers during normal operations to fewer than 300.

Caution and care quickly raced to the starting gate, especially after health officials announced Santa Anita reported 17 positive COVID-19 cases during its recent lead-in meet. (Santa Anita said there were only two cases on the backstretch.)

Former San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, who represented Del Mar’s district for two decades, relayed concerns about the opening to Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s health officer, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and others via email.

Slater-Price raised issues with what she called crowded living conditions and shared bathrooms for workers living on-site. She recommended weekly testing and public updates on the number of tests and results as the city does with homeless residents housed at the convention center.

“This concerns me because we’re now in this new surge (of cases),” Slater-Price said by phone. “I think it’s possible this could become another hot spot. I don’t think they’re going to cancel (the meet), so the question becomes, how can we make the situation safer?”

Rubinstein said Del Mar’s nine-page plan for opening was crafted after consultation with county health officials and medical professionals at Scripps. Those officials did not recommend testing unless workers showed symptoms, he said. The county health department will administer tests and relay results, he said.

“This isn’t (Del Mar CEO) Joe Harper or Josh Rubinstein saying this is how we need to do it,” he said. “These are medical professionals offering recommendations.”

Gary Johnston, the county’s COVID-19 reopening point person from the office of emergency services, said via email that although no businesses require approval from the county for reopening plans, Del Mar has consulted his office about its protocols. Del Mar’s plan “is consistent with other reopening plans we’ve seen across the county,” Johnston said.

Meanwhile, attractions like Disneyland delayed opening. Yosemite National Park opened some campsites, before slamming the brakes on others as regional cases spiked. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday, June 29, instructed bars in seven counties to close and on Wednesday, July 1, ordered 19 counties to shut down indoor activities such as dining inside restaurants.

Rubinstein said Del Mar is aware of only one employee testing positive since awareness rose in March. A male track worker self-reported and immediately self-quarantined, he said.

“I don’t think anybody likes the masks, but you have to do it to slow down this thing,” trainer Clifford Sise said. “The protocols here are tough, which is good.”

Trainer Peter Miller, trackside in a mask, said racing’s reality feels like a minimal ask.

“It’s common-sense stuff,” said Miller, who lives in Encinitas. “I feel very comfortable and confident being here. Basically, it’s what they’re doing outside of our industry at restaurants, hotels and those places. It’s not really different.

“It’s not brain surgery.”

Trainer Peter Miller at Del Mar this week.
Trainer Peter Miller talks with Del Mar Thoroughbred Club officials during morning workouts this week. The opening day of racing is July 10.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Walking the grounds at the start of the week, it appeared roughly 95 percent of workers milling around barn areas wore masks. The few who did not were by themselves with lowered masks that could be deployed quickly. Access to barns will be limited to only essential personnel moving forward.

“We’re very much locked down,” Rubinstein said.

Another health screening tent is positioned by the racing office, though traffic will be severely reduced there because entries and daily draws will be handled by phone rather than in person.

Tracks and health departments continue to gauge what feels acceptable in terms of positive cases. The 17 cases at Santa Anita came during six months with 750 workers living on-site and roughly 300 more who entered and exited on a daily basis, according to the Los Angeles Times. Del Mar, Rubinstein said, will see just under 1,000 race-related workers during its meet.

Belmont Park near New York logged 86 positives and one death through the Belmont Stakes, the Times reported last month.

Del Mar has prepared for the worst, while hoping for the best.

“It’s a community,” Harper said. “They’ve gone through this at Santa Anita, so it makes our job easier.”

The facility tinkered with its schedule, moving its opener up eight days to spread out dates and target more attractive weekend slots. Del Mar plans to run 10 races on Fridays and Sundays, with 11 on Saturdays through (and including) Labor Day.

Though there will be eight fewer race days, bigger programs means the track hopes to lose just six races compared to 2019.

Horses get in their morning workout at Del Mar.
Horses get in their morning workout this week at Del Mar. Racing begins July 10.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

All indications signal the track will operate as safely as possible, but the scene surely will feel surreal — especially on the muted opening day.

“Quiet,” Sise, the trainer, said when asked to gauge opening day 2020. “Very quiet.”

Rubinstein said county health officials did not define specific thresholds — numbers of positive cases in a certain period of time — that would trigger tightening restrictions or possible closure of the meet. Johnston, the county’s health contact, indicated the same.

“A lot of it is what are the results, right?” Rubinstein said. “If it’s a half a dozen people who had symptoms, had positives and went through quarantine procedures — that’s certainly different than something worse. We’ll ultimately follow the lead of the health department.

“The reality is, we’re not going to be the ones conducting the testing. Due to privacy laws, we may not be aware (right away) if someone tests positive. We will be an open book. If we are made aware, we’ll share that.”

Facing a virus and disease known for its unpredictability means no health protocols can guarantee absolute safety.

Del Mar, though, seems as ready as possible for a summer like no other.

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