In an accident as bizarre as it was tragic, two thoroughbreds lost their lives Thursday morning during training on the second day of the Del Mar racing season.
About 6:40 a.m., two unraced colts had such a violent collision that both died almost instantly on the track of broken necks, according to Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board.
Charge a Bunch, a 2-year-old trained by Carla Gaines, bolted and unseated rider Geovanni Franco and then wheeled and ran head on into Carson Valley, who was being ridden by Assael Espinoza and trained by Bob Baffert.
Franco was unhurt and Espinoza was taken to a hospital when he complained of a sore back.
“He’s OK, he got lucky,” said Brian Beach, Espinoza’s agent. “It’s just a mild sprain of the back. He wasn’t riding [Thursday], so he will rest up and hopefully be able to ride this weekend.”
As unusual as this accident was, it would still be largely unnoticed by the public. But, after 30 equine fatalities at Santa Anita this past meeting, public perception of the sport and the safety of the horses have become national issues.
It left Del Mar officials with the task of explaining why they believed the incident was nothing more than a freak accident with no relation to Santa Anita or medication reforms in the industry.
“It was like a wrong-way driver on an interstate,” said Joe Harper, chief executive at Del Mar. “A guy took the wrong lane by mistake. It’s just an accident and it’s a horrible accident and they are very, very rare. In light of all that’s been going on at Santa Anita, it certainly gets a lot more attention.”
There were no animal rights’ protesters at either the entrance to the track or the CHRB meeting held at a hotel across the street. There were about 25 protesters at Wednesday’s opening day, and they were met with counter-protesters, who support the racing industry and the jobs it supplies. There were no incidents between the groups.
It’s widely accepted that a riderless horse is one of the most dangerous parts of training, racing or on the backstretch. During training a warning horn and lights go off every time a horse loses its rider, telling everyone else on the track to get to the outside rail and use extreme caution until the horse is caught.
On Thursday, the incident happened so fast that there was no time to sound the alarm.
“It all happened in like 10 seconds,” Baffert said. “Some people yelled, but they had like a three-second warning. It gives me chills thinking about it.”
Gaines released a statement on Twitter saying: “[Thursday] morning Gaines Racing had a very unfortunate and freak training accident at Del Mar, the likes of which I have not experienced in over 30 years of training race horses. … Our whole barn is still in shock and grieving and the loss of the horses, and my heart goes out to both of their owners and Bob and his team. We appreciate all those that continue to support us and our industry.”
The horses will be necropsied to see if there were any mitigating factors that caused the deaths.
After a devastating 2016 in which 23 horses died either racing or training, Del Mar lowered it to four racing deaths and five in training over two meetings last year. At 0.79 deaths per 1,000 starts, it had the lowest fatality rate of any major track in the country.
In trying to explain why Thursday’s incident happened, Arthur pointed to immaturity.
“Young horses do silly things, whether you are on the race track or on the ranch,” Arthur said. “Just like adolescent humans, they are more prone to accidents. … From our analysis so far, all the safety protocols were followed and everyone responded very quickly to these deaths. It just happened too quickly.”
Both training and racing continued on Thursday. The Del Mar racing season is eight weeks and will end on Labor Day.
Ronald Frazier, a San Diego Superior Court judge, did not rule on the granting of a restraining order that would have allowed trainer Jerry Hollendorfer to stable horses and run at Del Mar.
The judge said the case was so complex that he needed more time to review the material and that a ruling would be made on July 26.
Hollendorfer was banned by The Stronach Group, which includes Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, from racing at its tracks after the death of four of his horses at Santa Anita. Del Mar has remained silent about its stance on Hollendorfer, but has not granted him stall space or the ability to race.
San Diego Union Tribune columnist Bryce Miller contributed to this story.