Complexity seems to be the only sure thing surrounding the Del Mar Horsepark and the 22nd District Agricultural Association’s announcement Thursday, Dec. 17, that it was “pausing” equestrian activity there in 2021. “I thought they were calling to discuss my proposal,” reports veteran hunter/jumper show organizer Dale Harvey of the call he got early in the week. “They booked 13 shows of mine for next year, then three days ago, I am informed they are closing. I only found out about this on Monday or Tuesday, when everybody else did.”
Dale is among the many who are deeply concerned and perplexed. “When they take things away, they don’t give them back,” the West Palms Events chief states. “There is no reason for this place to be closing.” Dale says his proposal to continue hosting shows at the Horsepark in 2021 included funds to address the water quality issues that are the main focus of the 22DAA’s stated rationale for closing to equestrian activity.
The original cost of that was estimated to be between $2 to $3 million, Dale explains. “But when they called to tell me of the closure, they said it had jumped to $8 to $10 million.” His proposal was one of several financially viable options for continuing horse activity at the Horsepark, he adds. “This makes no sense.”
The 64-acre equestrian center is state-owned and a sister property to the 22DAA’s Del Mar Fairgrounds, located two miles away. “Moving horse shows from Horsepark to the Fairgrounds allows the 22nd DAA Board of Directors to further evaluate the necessary investment required to meet water quality requirements for equestrian activities at Horsepark while simultaneously considering the needs of the community,” the 22DAA’s press release states.
“Equestrian activity will continue at the Del Mar Fairgrounds which recently underwent significant infrastructure upgrades including completion of a storm water treatment system to ensure water quality protection that can accommodate large-scale equestrian events such as thoroughbred racing, horse shows, and livestock exhibitions.”
The Horsepark property is situated in an environmentally sensitive area adjacent to the San Dieguito River, the release continues.
Board president Richard Valdez elaborated in a follow-up response: “Continuing with an equestrian presence at the Horsepark property would require a significant and immediate investment of funds to address water quality requirements, which is simply not possible given the dire affects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the Fairgrounds’ revenues.
“We continue to look to the State to assist us with operational support. Once we stabilize, our Board will continue with our strategic planning process, which will include a comprehensive assessment of all possibilities for our property, including equestrian usages for the Horsepark property.
“We appreciate the community’s patience and understanding, and we will look to their input as we continue our strategic planning process.”
“Horse owners can certainly reach out to the board at upcoming meetings,” added 22DAA media contact Jennifer Hellman. The next one is scheduled for January 12 at 1:30pm and Zoom/public comment registration information is posted the week prior to the meeting. Correspondence can also be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org to be included in for future strategic planning discussion.
More Than Water?
Some equestrians feel there must be more to the story than water quality issues. What, they’re not sure.
The press release states that “staff is working with promoters who have historically held their shows at the Horsepark about relocating them to the Fairgrounds.” Dale Harvey, however, says there’ve been no discussions yet regarding the logistics and feasibility of moving his 2021 Horsepark shows to the Fairgrounds. Others note that the San Diego County Fair and the Thoroughbred racing season limit how many horse shows can be staged at the Fairgrounds.
“There are ways to do things and this isn’t it,” says Solana Beach equestrian Carla Hayes. She has been monitoring the 22DAA announcements and actions closely since a proposal early in the COVID-19 pandemic to temporarily house homeless veterans at the Horsepark. That plan didn’t pan out, but she has since been watching board meeting agendas and attending meetings where there were issues of potential concern as a San Diego County resident and an equestrian. “There was nothing about this on the most recent agenda, so I didn’t bother going. I was told even a board member had no idea they wanted to close the Horsepark.”
“The water thing has been going on for a long time,” Carla continues. She asserts that the Horsepark brought in close to $2 million in revenues from boarding and horse shows, even in this year when much of the competition agenda had to be cancelled.
Carla acknowledges there is “a lot going on” for the 22DAA right now. Indeed, the Board’s December 8 meeting agenda included discussion of three pieces of pending litigation posing significant exposure to the 22DAA. COVID-related financial issues and funding shortfalls well before that are well known.
To mobilize supporters, Carla has started a Save Del Mar Horsepark petition on http://www.change.org. The petition page includes email addresses for 22DAA Fairgrounds Board members. Carla encourages “respectful” emails to them, Governor Gavin Newsom and other leaders to express support for horses at the Horsepark. “In the end, it’s all about politics.” The petition had close to 2,000 signatures early Saturday morning after it was posted Friday, Dec. 18.
The loss of a riding school where families can enjoy horses without the cost of owning them is “what bugs me most” about the Horsepark’s closure, Carla says. That’s a reference to Concord Equestrian and its Riding Academy. The 18-horse lesson and training program has been based at the Horsepark for many years. “I learned how to ride at a riding school and it has been a lifelong pleasure,” says Carla.
A back injury caused her to hang up her irons, but she remains active in the San Diego Chapter of the California Dressage Society, which holds its championship and other shows at the Horsepark. She owns a top prospect for Grand Prix rider Dawn White O’Connor and doesn’t mind having to travel to Riverside County’s Temecula or Thermal to see them compete. “But what Concord Equestrian brings to the table is an opportunity for kids whose parents can’t afford a horse. There aren’t many of those in our county and we need that.”
Longtime equestrian advocate Kathy Hobstetter advises carefully-organized action on behalf of retaining the Horsepark. In contentious debates about the use of public land and facilities, the expensive aspects of horse sports can be effectively weaponized in the court of public opinion. There’s a heightened risk of that now because of COVID’s toll on the world’s physical and economic health.
“With the water quality issue statewide and horses, there could be environmental groups poised to counter horsemen and the valiant effort to save the park,” Kathy continues. “With the pandemic and lack of funding for community survival, we are in a perfect storm for the state to qualify the Horsepark closing.
“The reality of the situation is that this had been building for a long time,” she continues. “We have seen it coming.” Financial shortfalls, deep staff cuts and lawsuits over E-coli allegedly contracted at a San Diego County Fair petting zoo in 2019 are among challenges currently in play. Plus the water quality issues. “It is in everybody’s best interest to educate themselves about what’s going on,” she says. “There’s a lot of things people don’t know about and the factual information will help horsemen organize in a productive manner.”
Kathy advises “slowing building a coalition” of people willing to work with the State on preserving equestrian activity at the Horsepark. “Any sale or lease would start with a Request for Proposal, and that could take the State months to prepare.” Evaluating proposals or lease situations would take another long stretch of time. She is encouraged that the 22DAA “has made a commitment to maintain the grass field and to not tearing anything down for the foreseeable future.”
“The Horsepark is not owned by the 22DAA,” show organizer Dale Harvey concludes. “It is owned by us. They are charged with making decisions, but we expect sound decisions and transparency in the process. There was nothing in the board meeting packets online about this. Not a word and no public comment.”
The public’s ability to turn things may be a long shot, he acknowledges, but an attempt to do so is critical. “If you look at the landscape over the last 30 years, equestrian facilities of all types are shrinking and declining. That’s a real worry.”