Horses are put through their paces in preparation for the Breeders Cup
Horses are put through their paces in preparation for the Breeders Cup at the Del Mar Racetrack in 2017. Photo by Chris Stone

Two horses died at the Del Mar Fairgrounds race track Thursday morning after colliding during a training session, according to officials with the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

The accident happened around 6:30 a.m. during a training session, said thoroughbred club spokesman Dan Smith. The two horses suffered cervical fractures and died on the track, according to California Horse Racing Board Medical Director Dr. Rick Arthur.

The two horses, 3-year-old Carson Valley and 2-year-old Charge a Bunch, collided after Charge a Bunch unseated jockey Geovanni Franco, then turned sharply and ran in the wrong direction before colliding with Carson Valley, who was training alongside two other horses, according to a statement from the track.

Franco and the other two horses were unhurt in the collision, Smith said.

The jockey riding Carson Valley, Assael Espinoza, complained of pain in his lower back and underwent a CAT scan at a local hospital. Brian Beach, Espinoza’s agent, later confirmed on Twitter that the jockey avoided serious injury and suffered only a bruised lower back.

In an afternoon news conference regarding the deaths, Arthur and DMTC CEO Joe Harper called the collision extremely rare and compared it to a wrong-way driver on an interstate highway. Harper said the track’s safety protocols were followed correctly and there was no outside influence on the horses to make them collide.

Arthur said the accident was also a byproduct of the horses’ young ages. Young horses, much like teenagers and young adults, “do silly things, whether you’re on the race track or whether you’re on the ranch,” Arthur said.

Carson Valley was trained by Bob Baffert and Charge a Bunch was trained by Carla Gaines.

“This was a very unfortunate accident and it is a shock to everyone in the barn,” Baffert said in a statement. “We work every day to take the best care of our horses, but sometimes freak accidents occur that are beyond anyone’s ability to control.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Gaines said she had not experienced a similar training accident in more than 30 years of training race horses.

“Our whole barn is still in shock and grieving for the loss of the horses and my heart goes out to both of their owners, Bob and his team,” Gaines said.

The race track began its 80th racing season Wednesday in the midst of heavy criticism of the sport of horse racing from animal rights activists. A total of 30 horses died during the Dec. 26-June 23 racing season at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, prompting calls for increased safety measures and an indefinite closure of the track.

The DMTC dealt with a similarly deadly racing season in 2016, when 17 horses died during Del Mar’s racing season. After remaking its dirt track with the help of race track consultant Dennis Moore and implementing additional safety measures like adding a radiology and ultrasound facility along the track’s backstretch, only five horses died during Del Mar’s 2017 season and six during its 2018 season.

Since 2016, Del Mar has been rated one of the safest horse racing venues in the U.S., tallying only 0.79 horse deaths per 1,000 starts last year, according to the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database. According to the DMTC, the national average was 1.68 among tracks that reported their fatal injuries.

Regardless, animal rights activists pounced on Thursday’s accident as evidence that horse racing is deadly no matter where it takes place. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called on California horse racing tracks to release records of horses who have gotten loose on the track as well as a full investigation by the CHRB.

“Saying that deaths are inevitable in racing is like saying a swim team can’t compete without drowning,” PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said in a statement. “If racing can’t be done without horses dying, it shouldn’t be done at all.”

According to Arthur, the horses are expected to undergo necropsies at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory in San Bernardino to establish a clearer cause of death. The necropsies are in accordance with standard operating procedures for the state and the CHRB after a race horse’s death.

Updated at 4:35 p.m. July 18, 2019