By most accounts, the 80th opening day of Del Mar’s summer meet was not that different from those that came before it. There was the festive atmosphere, women in brightly colored summer ware, men wearing garish attire that would get you thrown out of any civilized establishment. And, of course, the hats.
So, all was well with the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Forgotten, or perhaps unknown, to most of the crowd of 31,276 was the precipice that the sport is hanging on in California after the tragic and turmoil-filled Santa Anita race meeting in which 30 horses died in either racing or training and 24 race cards were canceled.
But if you stopped by the stationary bicycle that would grind up the ice for your margarita or were to stand six deep in the paddock to see a $16,000 claiming horse, there was the feeling that, if only for this one day, horse racing was going to be just fine.
“This is like getting the first pickle out of the jar,” said Joe Harper, the track’s longtime chief executive. “It just gets a little easier when you get through opening day. You do feel the pressure a little more because it’s a bigger crowd. A lot of folks don’t come to the racetrack a lot; they just come opening day. It was a good crowd.”
Some people came to opening day but not inside the racing facility. In the area outside the first turn there were about 25 animal rights activists carrying signs, some with gruesome pictures of injured horses. But, that’s also not new, there are just more people this year.
In previous years, there would be activists with signs even as Del Mar was leading the country with the fewest fatalities among the larger racetracks. Over two meetings in 2018, Del Mar had four racing fatalities, for 0.79 deaths per 1,000 starts. The national average is 1.68. There were also five training deaths, although one was ruled “sudden death” meaning it was not related to a catastrophic breakdown.
This year, the animal rights activists were met by counter-protesters who represented back-stretch workers and were there to demonstrate their view of why the sport should continue.
“At the end of the day, they were talking to each other,” Harper said. “I don’t know what they were talking about, but they weren’t fighting.”
Inside, the crowd roared in a rather noncompetitive race as heavy favorite Julius, for trainer Doug O’Neill, won the first race by 11¼ lengths in the traditional one-mile opener.
It was not lost on O’Neill that his win was the first of many steps in trying to return the sport to some sense of normalcy.
“It is big time,” O’Neill said of the idea Wednesday was a new beginning. “Even prior to the first race [it felt that way]. Hopefully, speaking on behalf of horsemen, it just felt good. There is great communication between management and horsemen here. There’s just a good vibe. It’s feeling really good.”
Trainer John Sadler, whose Jasikan won the featured $100,000 Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-old fillies going a mile on the turf, wasn’t as upbeat as O’Neill.
“I was pretty upset and pretty disheartened the way things have come out here for [trainer] Jerry [Hollendorfer],” Sadler said. “He’s my friend for 30 years and he’s a great trainer. On that front it doesn’t have a good feel for me.”
Hollendorfer remains in limbo after The Stronach Group banned him from racing at all its tracks after four of his horses died at Santa Anita. While Del Mar has not taken a public position on Hollendorfer, it has not granted him stall space or allowed him to enter horses.
On Thursday, in conjunction with the California Thoroughbred Trainers, Hollendorfer’s attorneys will ask for a restraining order that would force the track to give him stall space and be allowed to run. The judge is expected to immediately rule on the order. This follows a complaint that was filed in San Diego Superior Court earlier in the week.
Sadler did point to a better future.
“It’s nice the way it’s gone to get a fresh start down here and hopefully they can get something done up at Santa Anita while we’re gone,” Sadler said. “Hopefully we can get some brighter days ahead for California horse racing.”
Harper also pointed to the future.
“This is going to be a tenser meet than we’ve ever had before,” he said. “But I think, hopefully, we’ve done [everything we can to make it safe]. …
“They all got back. It was great. I was holding my breath but fortunately the racing gods were with us [Wednesday].”