DEL MAR, Calif. — The public-relations chess match continued Thursday, in a driveway of a hotel on a soupy coastal morning.

Animal rights advocates moved their rook, holding signs that paint horse racing as heartless and sinister. Those in the industry countered with their knight, outdrawing the other group 5-to-1 before a monthly meeting of the California Horse Racing Board.

The least surprising part of it all: stalemate, again. When there’s a glimmer of common ground, it’s too often snuffed in a swirl of emotion and partisanship as the long, uncomfortable tug-o-war marches on.

What’s clear, however, for perhaps the first time, is that horse racing is wide awake — finally and fully.

“There’s a lot of emotion on both sides,” said Lani Miller, the wife of trainer Peter Miller who stood with others in the driveway of the Hilton, across the street from Del Mar. “They have an extreme passion for horses. We all do. But we’re here to support horse racing and show why it’s so important to so many of us.

“There’s a lot more of us — and we come with a vengeance.”

What a comment like that tells you, what the larger amount of counter-protesters tells you, what the heightened awareness across the board tells you, is that racing understands the stakes and has been shaken from its slumber.

Oddly, they owe a debt of thanks to the protesters they line up to debate and counter. The increased visibility and back-and-forth — and national media coverage that followed the disastrous Santa Anita meet, where 30 horses died — forced change.

Discomfort in the light of day forces reflection and action. Horse racing needed both.

Has the sport, particularly within the cross-hairs of Southern California, been roused to alert, undivided attention?

“I would say that,” said Del Mar CEO Joe Harper, who attended the meeting that stretched to four hours with an avalanche of public comment from all sides. “I’ve certainly felt that. I hear it in the stable area in the mornings. People say, ‘I guess it’s not business as usual, huh, Joe?’

“You’re seeing the cultural change.”

Efforts at reform and accountability actually seem genuine, rather than lip service. Many disagree on what shape all of it takes, but the industry finally seems to be saying in something closer to one voice that the only real mistake is to do nothing.

It’s early, though. If this was a football game, it’s just the first quarter.

“That’s certainly not a bad thing,” Steve Rothblum, an owner who’s also a racing manager for trainer Doug O’Neill, said of the wake-up call. “It did force us to mobilize and speak out. It was handled so poorly PR-wise at Santa Anita that it got out of control.

“I never thought (racing’s long-term survival) would be a question in my lifetime. It became a scary possibility. It motivated us a lot.”

Why did it take so long to bend enough ears and real problem-solving roots to grab hold? Because it remained clear Thursday that the conversation is not going away — even at Del Mar, the safest big track in America.

Though racing continues until Sept. 2, Del Mar has a chance to end without a racing fatality in the summer for the first time in “30-plus years, at least” according to a track spokesperson. Since records fail to reach back farther, it actually could be a first.

Four horses, however, died in training incidents.

Yet, the heat singes still.

“I get their desperation,” said Ellen Ericksen, an animal-right advocate. “People are talking about horse racing now and waking up to the fact that it’s a cruel industry, it’s corrupt and horses are dying. It’s almost 2020. It’s time to ban horse racing.

“They’re running scared.”

Voices ascended the emotional staircase at times as speakers on both sides spelled out their cases and concerns. In all but one or two instances among many, the whole of it remained respectful. One supporter of racing offered a glimpse into the reality the sport must acknowledge more readily when she mentioned “rebuilding the trust of the public.”

Truth is, organized dissent always has been there. A woman mentioned that she began protesting at Del Mar when she was 36 and is now twice that age. The difference now: The industry recognizes the urgency of it all.

No matter the progress, frustrations linger about middle ground — or if such a thing is possible.

“When no one’s there to push back, you only hear one side of the story,” said Rothblum, explaining the reason the industry is becoming more involved in the debate scrum. “We’ve invited (animal-rights groups) back to the barn to see what we do and they’ve declined every time.

“I’m proud of what our industry has done.”

O’Neill and Ericksen both confirmed they were on the verge of meeting recently at the barns. Show some things. Share some things. Start a dialogue. They disagree on why it did not happen, though O’Neill says a scheduling conflict caused him to push it to the next day while adding she’s welcome any time.

At the Thursday meeting, however, Ericksen referenced medication violation rulings from O’Neill’s past. Then a pro-racing supporter stood in front of the room and talked about putting protesters “in their place.”

One step forward, three steps back. The olive branches, so fragile and far between.

What’s clear in a situation lacking so much clarity: Racing is listening.

For real, this time.

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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