What's Next For Del Mar? - Saratoga Commences Historic 40-day Meet
What's Next For Del Mar?
The 75th season for Del Mar Racetrack
For years, Del Mar has enjoyed its stature as the coveted jewel of the Southern California horse racing circuit.
The racetrack's place at the top of the hierarchy is unrivaled, from its spectacular seaside setting and its large, demographically desirable clientele, to its short, exclusive race seasoning and its superior quality of racing.
If track officials had their way, the status quo would reign indefinitely.
The racing industry in the region, however, is a delicate ecosystem, one in which changes at one track can positively or negatively impact the operations at another. When it was announced in May that Hollywood Park in Inglewood would be closing by the end of 2013 -- after 75 years in business -- to make way for a mixed-use development, it ensured that Southern California would be left with only two major tracks: Del Mar and Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.
It also ensured that the upcoming summer season at Del Mar, which will open on Wednesday before another overflow crowd of over-the-top, hat-wearing patrons, will be the last before a year of great transition -- possibly tumult -- in the industry. And how successfully Del Mar and the other players will emerge from it, really, is anyone's guess.
"I think everybody's kind of anxious to see what 2014 is going to look like," said Joe Harper, the president and general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. "There's obviously some fear."
The racing circuit in the region runs throughout the year, so the shuttering of Hollywood Park means that its partners are having to absorb its racing dates. Starting in 2014, Santa Anita will add 11 extra weeks -- extending into early July -- to its normal winter season of 17 weeks that begins on the day after Christmas; the track will also host its usual fall season from Sept. 25 to Nov. 2.
As for Del Mar, during 74 of its 75 years of racing, it has hosted a single seven-week season in the summer. That will change next year, when it tacks on a month-long autumn season from Nov. 5 through Dec. 7.
Harper was a track cameraman in 1967, the only other time when fall racing came to Del Mar, and he recalls the season faring poorly. But that was an era when Del Mar was more dependent on customers from outside the area, especially Los Angeles County, and Harper believes that the track is now better equipped to take on the extra load.
"We're probably anticipating that, in 2014, the fall season will be somewhere in the neighborhood of half of what we do in the summer, as far as daily averages," Harper said, referring to on-track attendance (which averaged 17,623 last year) and betting handle (which was $12.4 million per day). "The balancing act is to keep that summer season as pristine as possible -to keep it totally attractive, sexy and somewhere that people want to be. And when you start adding days, it's going to take away from the flavor of the season. There is some concern about that, but we think where the new season is (on the calendar) would be the least objectionable and have the least impact on the summer season."
Horsemen in the industry are worried about whether Del Mar and Santa Anita will be able to integrate the new racing dates without a dilution of the product. A bigger worry, though, is the loss of Hollywood Park as a place to house (it features almost 2,000 stalls) and train thoroughbreds.
In terms of Del Mar, the thinking is that the track's stellar reputation relies largely on its lucrative purses attracting the region's best horses, particularly the 2-year-old horses around which the business revolves. Those 2-year-olds need somewhere to live and train while they prepare for the summer season, and it can't be at Del Mar, which -as a state-owned fairgrounds -can utilize its 2,000 stalls only during its racing period.
"We don't see that the proper training facilities have been developed for those horses coming on or for the total number of horses needed to continue Del Mar racing at the top level," said Alan Balch, the executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers, an organization that represents the state's trainers.
"Del Mar needs to be concerned about that."
More disconcerting still is the prospect of unfavorable training conditions prompting top owners and trainers to relocate their stable to rival circuits in the East or Midwest.
"You're probably going to see some mom-and-pop operations that are forced to get out of the business," said Doug O'Neill, who has been Del Mar's leading trainer four times and won two of the three Triple Crown races last year with I'll Have Another.
"I also think you're going to see some people flee the state, and California can't afford to lose any more horses than it already has. It's a scary time right now. There are so many good things about California racing that we can survive, but there are a lot of important decisions that lay ahead of us in the next six months. I hope we make the right calls."
The most important decision could be how to handle the potential stabling shortage. At a seasoning of the California Horse Racing Board in late May, the Thoroughbred Owners of California proposed a two-year plan that would involve using the stalls at Santa Anita, Del Mar and Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County, as well as almost 500 spots at San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall, which is in the midst of a four-month renovation being financed by the same company that owns Santa Anita.
Balch's group, the CTT, doesn't believe that proposal is sufficient, and wants to add to the mix the 1,200 stalls at Fairplex in Pomona. The TOC counters that such an option would be too expensive.
"The argument is made that we can't afford to have Pomona open for training. We're saying, "We can't afford not to,'" Balch said. "...Nobody can predict what's going to happen in 2014, so our organization's position is that we need to make all stabling available that we can find, even if it's at a very significant cost."
Closer to home, Del Mar is grappling with another kind of uncertainty. Though it's one of the nation's most prominent racetracks, Del Mar has never been able to bid on the Breeders' Cup -a two-day fall event that's considered the sport's Super Bowl -because its turf course is too narrow to accommodate the field sizes necessary for certain Breeders' Cup races. Immediately after this year's summer season ends, however, Del Mar will initiate a $3.7 million project to replace and widen the entire course.
Harper and his colleagues laid out that plan while also selling the virtues of the track and the surrounding market during a formal presentation to Breeders' Cup officials in New York last month. Harper hopes to bring the 2015 event to Del Mar, which would halt a three-year run of it being hosted by Santa Anita, and could pump $70 million into the local economy.
"I think San Diego is a tremendous marketplace for horse racing, and it's certainly deserving of consideration," said Craig Fravel, the president and CEO of the Breeders' Cup for the last two years after a two-decade stint with the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. "In my life there, the fans of Del Mar were extraordinary, and I'm sure that they would support the Breeders' Cup there in a very meaningful way."
But although the turf obstacle has been resolved, Del Mar's other racing surface -the synthetic Polytrack that was installed in 2007 -could hurt its Breeders' Cup candidacy. Fravel insists that the Breeders' Cup has no preference for traditional dirt tracks over synthetic ones, but Harper believes that surfaces are a factor, especially when Del Mar is compared with Santa Anita, which ditched its synthetic track and returned to dirt three years ago.
"Although our synthetic surface has been much safer than dirt surfaces, some horsemen would prefer dirt," Harper said. "I have a petition on my desk from a number of trainers to go back to dirt."
Harper said Del Mar officials have discussed a return to dirt without making a decision, and that it's difficult to balance the desire to attract the Breeders' Cup and the wishes of horsemen with what he contends is in the best interests of horses.
"It is a dilemma," he said. "There's not a clear-cut answer."
By Sean M. Haffey The San Diego Union-Tribune
Saratoga commences historic 40-day meet
A century and a half of racing history will come alive this summer when Saratoga opens its gates on Friday for the 40-day meet that brings together the finest horses, top jockeys, and best trainers in the country in celebration of the track's 150th anniversary.
Since its first Thoroughbred meet in August 1863, nearly all of racing's legends have traversed the Spa's famous oval, from Man o' War to Kelso, Beldame to Rachel Alexandra, Personal Ensign to Sky Beauty and Easy Goer to Curlin, all of whom will be recognized as part of the anniversary festivities.
With the Grade 1, $1 million Travers on August 24 as its centerpiece, the 2013 meet offers 53 listed and graded stakes races worth $14.95 million. Supporting the "Mid-Summer Derby" are 15 additional Grade 1 races, beginning with the $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks for three-year-old fillies on Saturday and concluding with the $300,000 Hopeful for juveniles on closing day, September 2.
"Saratoga's unsurpassed stakes schedule, which this year is worth nearly $15 million; the two-year-old program, which serves as a launching pad for many of our sport's future stars, and its long-standing tradition of turf racing on our two courses make it unique among racetracks," said P.J. Campo, NYRA's vice-president and director of racing. "Last year, champions Wise Dan, Shanghai Bobby, Questing, Royal Delta and Trinniberg all raced here, as did Orb, Oxbow and Palace Malice, who combined to win all three legs of this year's Triple Crown. We're proud of the quality of Saratoga racing, and we expect racing fans to respond enthusiastically to the product."
The leading trainers on the New York Racing Association (NYRA) circuit will make their annual trek north for the meet, including national leaders Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown -- a native of nearby Mechanicville, New York -- Christophe Clement, David Jacobson and Linda Rice, as well as Hall of Famers Shug McGaughey, Nick Zito and Bill Mott, the latter of whom will try to continue the tradition of winning a race on his birthday, July 29.
Augmenting the powerful New York contingent is an array of the top trainers from across the country, including Tom Amoss, Wayne Catalano, Eddie Kenneally, Charles LoPresti, Michael Matz, Graham Motion, Kenny McPeek, Dale Romans, Al Stall, and Ian Wilkes. Hall of Famers Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Jonathan Sheppard maintain strings at the Spa, with John Shireffs, newly relocated to New York, stabled there for the first time this year.
All will be vying for the H. Allen Jerkens training title, taken for the third straight time last year by Pletcher.
Accompanying McGaughey, Lukas and Pletcher to Saratoga will be the three winners of this year's Triple Crown -- Kentucky Derby hero Orb, Preakness winner Oxbow and Belmont victor Palace Malice, who could use the Travers as telling arguments for divisional supremacy.
Making Saratoga their summer home as well will be 2012's Horse of the Year Wise Dan and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, who on August 3 will try to become the first horse to put together back-to-back victories in the Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Handicap since Discovery, who won it three straight times from 1934-36.
This summer will see the usual plethora of classy juvenile races including the traditional six-pack of graded stakes: the Grade 3, $150,000 Schuylerville (Friday), Grade 2, $200,000 Adirondack (August 11) and Grade 1, $300,000 Spinaway (September 1) for fillies along with the Grade 2, $200,00 Sanford (Sunday), Grade 2, $200,000 Saratoga Special (August 11) and aforementioned Hopeful, taken last year by eventual juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby.
Top-notch turf racing is traditional at the Spa, with the Grade 1, $600,000 Diana for fillies and mares on July 27 and the Grade 1, $600,000 Sword Dancer Invitational on July 27 capping the multitude of daily grass race offerings. Steeplechase racing as well gets a chance to shine, with the top jumpers in North America and abroad assembling for the Grade 1 A. P. Smithwick Memorial on August 1 and the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers' Cup on August 22.
Competition for the Angel Cordero Jr. riding title is expected to be fierce, as the always-tough New York jockey colony looks to fill the shoes of the retired Ramon Dominguez, who won last year's title with a record 68 winners. Among them are Hall of Famer John Velazquez, a five-time winner who is poised to surpass Jerry Bailey as the all-time leading jockey (1976-2013) at Saratoga; Javier Castellano, who has been runner-up the past three years; Derby-winning rider Joel Rosario; brothers Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz, and Rosie Napravnik, who will rejoin the New York colony for the summer.
James Marvin, Schuylerville Highlight Spa Friday Opener
Souper Speedy will enter Friday's Grade 3, $100,000 James Marvin in career-best form when he takes on eight rivals in the seven-furlong dash on Saratoga's opening day program. The James Marvin is one of three stakes on the card, which kicks off the ancient venue's 40-day meet on the 150th anniversary of its founding.
A promising juvenile who missed a large chunk of his sophomore season last year due to injury, Souper Speedy came into his own at the recently concluded Belmont spring meet. Following a first-level allowance score by more than 10 lengths on May 23, the Tom Albertrani charge returned 15 days later to capture the $147,000 Jaipur via disqualification after being carried out by Big Screen in deep stretch.
Originally scheduled for the turf, the Japiur was downgraded to a listed event after it was moved to a sloppy main track.
"The horse has come back very well, so this race looks like an ideal spot," Albertrani said.
Also exiting the Jaipur is Politicallycorrect, whose third-place finish was his best in his last three outings. The Wesley Ward pupil displayed versatility last year, capturing the nine-furlong Oklahoma Derby at Remington and the seven-furlong Damascus at Santa Anita.
Sage Valley, whose four-race win streak was snapped last time when a dull fifth in the True North Handicap June 8, is eligible to rebound. The colt scored his signature win two back, taking the Maryland Sprint Handicap at Pimlico as the 2-1 favorite.
Strapping Groom turned out to be a successful claim for David Jacobsen when taking the $100,000 Lion Cavern at Belmont on June 26, one month after being haltered for $35,000. Also entering the James Marvin in good form is Jaguar Paw, a comfortable winner of the off-the-turf Three Coins Up at Belmont June 14.
Right to Vote, a five-length winner of the June 29 Kelly's Landing at Churchill Downs, leads a Kentucky-based contingent that also includes stakes winner Laurie's Rocket, who's placed in the Kelly's Landing, True North and Maryland Sprint in his last three.
Friday's card also features the Grade 3, $150,000 Schuylerville, the historic six-furlong heat for two-year-old fillies. Bahnah, a dynamite six-length debut winner at Churchill June 6, might go as a slight favorite over the Todd Pletcher-trained entry of Yes Liz and Elena Strikes, debut winners at Belmont and Monmouth, respectively.
Also exiting maiden wins are the Steve Asmussen-trained Brazen Persuasion, John Robb's Jonesin for Jerry, and Tom Albertrani's True Blue Nation. Lone Star graduate Silver Valley, a distant fourth in the Debutante at Churchill last month after a slow start, completes the field of seven.
The stakes action Friday begins with the $100,000 On the Bus, a 1 1/16-mile inner turf tussle for New York-bred fillies and mares.
Despite going unplaced in the Sheepshead Bay and Dr. James Penny Memorial Handicap in her last two starts, Grade 3 queen Hessonite figures to be a strong favorite in the race. The David Donk pupil has compiled a three-for-four mark over the Saratoga turf, easily capturing the Irish Linnet and Yaddo during the 2012 meet.
Divisional veterans Shakeria, Inimitable Romanee and Mystic City are also expected to attract support.
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