DEL MAR, Calif. — To California Horse Racing Board commissioner Fred Maas, the scrutiny and public-relations shrapnel the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club faced as its annual summer meet loomed equated to a baseball game spiraling out of control.

It’s as if Santa Anita, which during the winter and spring hosted a disastrous meet where 30 horses died — causing animal-rights groups and politicians stretching from the governor’s office to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to sharpen criticism — had given up a grand slam.

Del Mar became a relief pitcher trotting in from the bullpen, asked to stem bleeding not of its own making to regain the industry’s footing.

“If you’re in that situation facing a new batter, it’s a difficult predicament,” said Maas, a San Diegan. “The challenges we face in horse racing are difficult, in a perfect world. When you face what comes after a travesty like the one at Santa Anita, that has huge implications. Actions (Del Mar) took related to safety had an impact on the operation of the track. Attendance was down. (Betting) was down.

“To the extent they were in the spotlight, Del Mar felt the brunt of it — and I thought they faced it brilliantly. We all know one fatality is too many, but you have to be impressed by how Del Mar handled it.”

As the racing industry wobbles in California, Del Mar became the rock it needed at the exact time it needed it. Heading into Monday’s final day of a 36-day meeting, the track has suffered no in-race fatalities, something track officials say could be unprecedented — though figures on horse deaths only go back three decades or so.

That in no way indicates the historic seaside track escaped unbruised. Del Mar officials said four horses died during morning training this summer, including two killed in a head-to-head collision that those in the industry equate to a rarest-of-rare accident.

After a horrible 2016, when 23 horses died in racing or training at Del Mar, totals dropped to eight in 2017 (five in summer, three in fall) and seven in ‘18 (six in summer, one in fall). A 2018 report from the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, which includes in-race fatalities only, ranked Del Mar best in safety among the nearly two dozen self-reporting tracks — with a rate less than half the national average.

Meanwhile, the track will run 21 fewer races this summer than a year ago; track officials blame horses fleeing the state in the wake of Santa Anita’s troubles and fiercely debated regulatory changes. Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper said numbers for the first 30 days of the meet showed betting handle dipping 12.3% and attendance 10.6.

Racing Secretary David Jerkens said field size, the life blood of a track, fell from 8.8 a year ago to about 8 — still considered robust within the industry, but yet another indicator of waves rocking the sport in the state.

Expectations for the meet were framed differently than any other year, however. Like the mandate for Boy Scouts at a campsite, the industry hoped Del Mar would leave horse racing better than it found it.

And with a day remaining, Del Mar did.

“It was nerve-wracking for sure, coming in here,” said trainer Peter Miller of Encinitas, who estimated he moved a third of his 75 horses to Kentucky after Santa Anita to diversify while mitigating risk in an uncertain Southern California climate. “Del Mar went about it the right way.

“The industry has changed and some of it is for the better. I think we needed to improve. We needed to look at ourselves with a critical eye. Unfortunately, it took a catastrophic Santa Anita meet to do that. It shouldn’t have, but it did.”

So if the final day of the meet closes without incident, Del Mar will exhale.

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At the most recent CHRB meeting in Del Mar, counter-protesters outnumbered protesters 5-to-1 in the driveway outside of a hotel. Inside, exchanges during the meeting reminded how sensitive and raw the conversation remains.

An animal-rights advocate who identified herself as Martha Sullivan bristled during a public-comment moment that the board failed to explain when, how and if it would use new reform tools to shut down a meet.

“It’s just business as usual and just kind of lip service,” Sullivan said.

Routinely, the board listens to the comments, simply thanks speakers for their thoughts and moves on without engaging. This time, board Chairman Chuck Winner leaned into his microphone.

“It isn’t business as usual,” he said. “If you’ll go on the website and take a look at all the actions that this board has taken, you’ll see that there have been any number of changes and we’re continually making changes.

“Clearly, it’s not business as usual.”

At one point of a rapid-fire series of questions from an audience member, Winner revealed the emotional nature of it all: “We’re not here to answer all of our questions. So you can’t interrogate us.”

The unease carried over to the track itself, where an animal-rights protester was detained and cited for a physical altercation with a horse-racing supporter.

“I think everybody sort of had to take cover, you know?” said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, explaining the dread as the meet opened. “We had our feet to the fire. We always complain we weren’t getting enough stories about us. Watch what you wish for. When we finally do, the stories are the negative stuff.

“But all in all, it’s been a good meet.”

Still, some silver-lining numbers exist for Del Mar. The successful ship-and-win program — bonus-money incentives to lure horses from other states — has spiked 14 percent. The average bet per horse rose in the meet’s first 30 days, from $173,778 in 2018 to $180,705.

Harper said those financial underpinnings buoy his long-term confidence.

“The overall figures would certainly be alarming if it was the same number of horses and races,” he said. “Bottom line is, with what we’ve been handed, we’re making the best of it and doing a little better than last year in some areas.

“In the olden days, (track financial success) was all about quality. Now, it’s quantity that produces the better (betting) handle.”

California’s horse population drives field size, which drives betting, which drives overall financial health. Del Mar exceeds many tracks in additional revenue with a strong food and beverage program due to it being a coastal destination with parties and bands.

All, however, remain anxious about California’s horse population. Did the Santa Anita wreckage create a one-year problem or a long-term stain that could create a new, less hearty financial normal?

At stake, according to horse-racing advocates, is an industry that creates $4.5 billion in financial impact across the state via an estimated 77,000 employees.

“They tried to run Santa Anita like it was Gulfstream Park (in Florida),” said Miller, the trainer. “I tried to tell them, Gulfstream Park is a cactus. You can’t kill it. Santa Anita’s a rose. It’s very fragile. That has to do with the inventory and numbers of horses. Florida’s got about (three times as many horses). You can’t treat an apple like an orange.

“I think the sport’s in a constant state of tweaking and getting better. I think we have too much racing in California for the number of horses. I think that’s the main issue.”

Animal advocates continue to monitor progress and missteps.

“I don’t think there’s ever an excuse for a horse dying,” said Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “If racing can’t have zero deaths, there shouldn’t be racing. But we do support the steps they’ve taken.

“I do think more needs to be done. We’re working with the CHRB right now to strengthen the rules. We do oppose racing, but we’re also practical. We realize it’s not going away tomorrow. So we’re working with Del Mar and the racing industry.”

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The real measuring stick for Del Mar and horse racing in California rests, in many ways, on the impressions left across state offices in Sacramento.

Questions posed to the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom were directed to Russ Heimerich, deputy secretary of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency. The cabinet-level agency oversees the CHRB and 10 other departments.

Asked to gauge Del Mar’s performance in the wake of Santa Anita and reforms that include review panels to flag questionable horse prior to racing, Heimerich responded via email: “There have definitely been improvements since the recent Santa Anita meet … (and) over the past six months the board has severely restricted pre-race medications and has developed regulations to shut down a meet if horse or rider safety is at risk.

“So we’re moving in the right direction.”

Whispers swirled about ultimatums for Del Mar, in terms of scenarios that could shut down the meet.

Maas, of the CHRB, said he was unaware of anything like that originating from the board. Heimerich said he knew of no such directive from Sacramento, though underscored that the bar has been raised.

“There have not been any such conversations with Del Mar, but we have let it be known to Del Mar — and other facilities — that going forward we will be placing an even greater emphasis on horse and rider safety,” he wrote. “And they were certainly aware of Senate Bill 469, which the Governor signed and which allows the CHRB to take immediate action on race meet licenses if horse or rider safety is threatened.”

Even with Del Mar’s spotless-so-far racing record, concern lingers.

“We all hear Dianne Feinstein saying, stop racing,” said Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. “The politicians jump on the bandwagon because it looks good for them after the animal-rights people speak up. I’m not saying they’re all wrong; maybe people needed to wake up and look at it a little different than the cowboy days, OK? But this is a great game.”

Del Mar, Mandella argued, deserves praise for how it navigated a summer like no other.

“This has been a phenomenal meet with safety,” he said. “We need to say loudly that you cannot count the two horses that ran into each other. They could have done that in a field or out on the prairie. That’s like an accident on the freeway. What are you going to do, stop the freeway?

“The industry is giving 150% to try and stay safe and hopefully people recognize that. The good thing about all of this, maybe it made us all stand up and say, hey, let’s give this a little stronger look and see if we can do better. I’m all for that.

“Maybe we’ve got Santa Anita’s attention — and that could be good.”

Del Mar, per Maas’ analogy, has served as the relief pitcher horse racing urgently needed. All involved realize, though, that racing remains on unsteady and unpredictable ground.

Every time horses load into a starting gate, more watch — and more hold their collective breath.

“You take everybody into consideration,” said Maas, of the feedback and divergent opinions weighed by the CHRB. “The animal rights people, PETA, backstretch workers and labor and everyone else in the industry. We need to be responsible to everybody.

“To a degree, they’ve all helped (inform the discussion). I encourage public discourse, even though it’s not always easy to hear.”

Del Mar entered 2019 under a cloud. Though slivers of sunlight slice through, those clouds hardly have parted.

Not yet. And maybe, not ever.

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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