Last year, at the end of a two-week family vacation at Del Mar, I read a headline on the front page of the San Diego Union Tribune that said “No Dead Horses at Del Mar.” There had been so many catastrophic and fatal injuries over Del Mar’s killing fields, especially over the first two weeks of the meeting, that it was considered news when the track managed to get through an entire day of racing without a fatality or an ambulance run.
A higher than average injury rate had been a problem at Del Mar for a number of years, but local newspapers and television stations began picking up on it, giving Del Mar more publicity than it had ever received before—all for the wrong reasons. Last year, especially at the beginning of the meeting when breakdowns seemed like a daily occurrence and press coverage mounted, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president Joe Harper said, “If we don’t do something about this, we’ll be put out of business.” The 2006 equine death toll was 20.
Harper and executive vice president Craig Fravel had become keenly interested in synthetic surfaces as a possible solution, even before they were mandated at the state’s major tracks by 2008 by the California Horse Racing Board.
Del Mar opted for Polytrack, the best-known synthetic surface, which has been installed at Keeneland, Turfway Park, Woodbine, and Arlington Park. Arlington had suffered through a 2006 similar to Del Mar’s, where most of the headlines were about track safety and an alarming injury and death rate.
Polytrack has not been perfect. A lot of adjusting was done at Turfway, particularly during the cold winter months, and Woodbine experienced problems with the separation of the Polytrack materials, especially during colder weather.
Del Mar may not have to worry about bitter cold, but the difference in temperature from morning training hours to afternoon racing is having an effect on Polytrack. Horsemen generally prefer the tighter condition of the track in the morning to what they have found later in the day, when it’s been described as loose and slow.
One of the Polytrack critics, trainer Bob Baffert, created a stir just before the meeting opened when he told track superintendent Steve Wood that it needed a major adjustment. Wood took Baffert up on the suggestion, but the next day a number of trainers were up in arms, some of them canceling workouts because they felt the condition was unsafe.
Wood has been a notorious “tinkerer” of conventional dirt tracks, often working throughout the night, but a number of trainers said Wood would have to change his ways. The less maintenance done on Polytrack the better, some have said.
One trainer, Darrell Vienna, thinks Del Mar’s track superintendent is trying to serve too many masters. “The only master that should count,” Vienna said, “is the horse and his safety.”
So far, so good. Del Mar got through the first three weeks of its meeting with no breakdowns or fatal injuiries on Polytrack. “After the first week of the meeting, Harper was all smiles. “Last year at this time, we had seven deaths,” Harper said at the time. “This year, zero. Those are the most important numbers to me.”
A week later, Harper got caught up in a stable area confrontation with new prominent owner Ahmed Zayat, who echoed Baffert’s criticism that the track is too loose and is taking speed horses out of their game.
The confrontation ended with Zayat telling Harper he was pulling his horses out of Del Mar and sending them to the East Coast. No racetrack wants to lose an owner, but if Polytrack’s safety record continues, most owners will be happy.