Del Mar held its annual opening day of thoroughbred horse racing Wednesday, and by the time it was over, track officials were wondering who walked under the ladder or crossed the path of a black cat.
What was supposed to be a day of fun in the sun for the biggest crowd ever at Del Mar of 44,907, most of whom dressed and consumed as if it were a cocktail party, turned ugly quickly.
In the third race, an 8-year-old gelding named Mi Rey, trained by Doug O’Neill and ridden by Rafael Bejarano -- both huge stars in the sport -- turned for home. It was a six-furlong race for 4-year-olds and up, a $10,000 claimer.
Just off the rail, in the middle of the pack, Mi Rey’s right front leg fractured. He lurched to his right, into other horses, then straightened a bit and tossed Bejarano, who had been hanging on for several strides.
Bejarano hit feet first and rolled, momentarily clear. Along the rail, another star jockey, Garrett Gomez, on the last horse that needed to get past Bejarano to minimize his injuries, tried to yank Senor Afortunado around his fallen friend.
“My horse got so close to the fence, he did one of these” -- Gomez arched his hip left to demonstrate -- “and almost hit the rail himself,” Gomez said. “I looked back. Couldn’t see if he was moving or not. There wasn’t a lot I could do.”
Bejarano wasn’t moving.
Senor Afortunado, as hard as he had tried to miss, kicked Bejarano in the face. If the angle of the blow is wrong, jockeys can die in this sort of accident. Bejarano likely survived by inches. He suffered a broken jaw, which will be wired shut while it heals, a broken nose and several fractured bones in his face and around his eyes. Those fractures will necessitate surgery and he was kept overnight in Scripps Memorial Hospital.
As horrifying as that was, so was the equine agony taking place.
Somehow, Mi Rey kept going. With right front foot held in place only by skin and tissue, the old war horse half galloped, half hobbled down the main stretch, angling toward the outside rail, where thousands of fans would watch, just yards away. As the race finished and few watched, track personnel finally got Mi Rey surrounded and got ahold of his reins.
The mandatory green screens were rushed out, in an attempt to block the fans’ view of the grotesque injury. Fairly quickly, Mi Rey was pushed and cajoled into the ambulance, where Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, put Mi Rey to rest.
“It is not all that usual for a horse to run off like that,” Arthur said.
“You just don’t see that. Often, they will pull themselves and wait. In this case, running off like he did, the damage was so much more.”
Watching nearby along the outside rail was longtime racing fan John Lewis of National City.
“I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” Lewis said. “I’ve seen this three or four times, but not up this close. It’s a dangerous sport. It’s sad, because you come out and this takes some of the joy out of the day.”
Also nearby were Brian Johnson and Laura Greenlee, both of San Diego.
“It was ugly,” Johnson said. “There was just no foot on one side.”
Greenlee, a veterinarian, said she has had to put down one horse in her career. “I knew what they were going to have to do the moment I saw it,” she said.
Leandro Mora, O’Neill’s main assistant, stood near the rail an hour or so later, shaking his head.
“He was a great old horse, full of personality,” Mora said. “He never gave us a hint that anything was wrong.”
Three years ago, O’Neill and Mora lost another horse on Del Mar’s opening day. Blazing Sunset broke down in the featured Oceanside Stakes that day, and it was the beginning of a tragic season that produced 19 deaths at the track and prompted the CHRB to mandate California tracks’ implementing synthetic surfaces.
Besides Mi Rey, Del Mar had a 2-year-old filly, Mad for Plaid, break down in training Sunday, and the poor response to that by track personnel had spurred controversy going into opening day.
Arthur said that these kinds of incidents, no matter what quality horse or where the accident happens, have occasionally pushed him to the edge of quitting his work with racehorses.
“I got to one horse who had broken both ankles,” Arthur said. “He was just resting on his front stumps. I came the closest to quitting right there.”
Arthur said he was at the Breeders’ Cup the year the filly Go For Wand broke down on the home stretch and tried to carry on with her leg flapping in skin.
“I looked around,” Arthur said, “and quickly, much of the section of the grandstand right there had cleared out.”
As the day went on, some things were normal, others not.
Wednesday’s total handle of $13,182,915 compared favorably, when adjusted for the current crummy economy, to last year’s $13,956,989.
In the $112,800 featured Oceanside Stakes, Vladimir Cerin’s Afleet Eagle came home 2 1/2 lengths in front of the field and paid $14.60 to win.
But then, in the next race, a horse named Wickednwackyingred won and stomachs churned in racing’s hierarchy.
The filly was named by controversial owner-critic Jerry Jamgotchian, who has made the ouster of current race steward Ingrid Fermin one of his campaigns against the CHRB.
Jamgotchian, a wealthy developer from Manhattan Beach, owns more than 100 horses, refuses to run them in California because of the synthetic tracks and named the filly to spite Fermin before selling her.
Hours after racing had finished, Del Mar chief executive Joe Harper met the media, smiled and spun things to the positive as best he could.
After that, he probably went looking for four-leaf clovers.
A grim toll
Breakdowns resulting in euthanizations at Del Mar. The previously high death totals resulted in the change to synthetic track:
2006: 19 breakdowns: 10 in the afternoon, eight on dirt and two on grass; nine in the morning, seven on dirt and two on grass.
CHANGE TO POLYTRACK
* 2007: 11 breakdowns: six in the afternoon, five in the morning; six on Polytrack, five on grass.
* 2008: Eight breakdowns: five in the afternoon, three in the morning, all on Polytrack.
* 2009: Two breakdowns: both on Polytrack, including one Sunday in training (Mad for Plaid, 2-year-old maiden) and Wednesday’s opening day afternoon death of Mi Rey, 8-year-old gelding.
Source: Del Mar