DEL MAR, Calif. (KGTV) - A series of changes over the last three years has helped the Del Mar Racetrack claim the title of "safest" track in North America.
"We're on the right track right now," says Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper. "I think the more this industry realizes how important it is to keep these horses as healthy as possible, the better we're going to be."
It started three years ago, when the facility overhauled the racing surface, spending millions on a new surface. Harper says the cushion is better, the soil is safer, and the banking on the turns puts less pressure on the horses' legs as they run.
But even before the horses get into the starting line, the track has several protocols they follow to check their health throughout the day.
"We used to look at these horses as they entered in a race," says Harper. "But that wasn't enough. So we hired a lot more veterinarians. And now we look at (the horses) in the morning workouts."
A team of veterinarians from the California Racing Board watches morning workouts. They also inspect the horses in their stables and as they come to the paddock before the race. And they look over the horses before the start of the race and once it ends.
"We're looking for minor injuries before they become major injuries," says Dr. Alina Vale, one of the vets who works at Del Mar.
"The main thing that we look at is their legs to ensure that they're sound," says Dr. Vale. "That means they're not limping, and they don't have any mild injuries in their limbs that would prevent them from racing successfully."
An on-site PET scan machine also helps with diagnosing. It allows the vets to see injuries even before they would show up on a radiograph or ultrasound.
The vets also handle all medicine given to the horses from a pharmacy on site. Dr. Vale says that ensures that the horses only get the drugs they need.
"We want to make sure the horses aren't overmedicated," says Dr. Vale. "The veterinarians' job is to ensure that they're only administering medications that are appropriate and therapeutic to the horse."
The extra medical attention helps, but Harper says it was just as essential to get trainers to prioritize horse health and safety.
"The major thing was changing the culture," says Harper. "For a lot of the old trainers, we had to get them to realize, if there's any doubt in their mind, don't put the horse in a race."
The changes have paid off. Numbers from the Equine Injury Database show that Del Mar is now rated as the safest track in North America for avoiding horse deaths from injuries suffered while racing:
As the new racing season begins, Harper says he hopes the track can keep that title and keep the horses healthy.
"Nobody loves these horses more than we do," he says.