Del Mar raises curtain on 75th season - Saratoga kicks off 2012 season

Del Mar raises curtain on 75th season

Starting Wednesday, racing fans will once again flock to where the turf meets the surf down at old Del Mar, as the famed seaside track raises the curtain on its 75th anniversary season.

For the first time since 2008, the traditional opening-day feature, the Oceanside Stakes, has garnered enough entries to be split into two divisions. Each division of the one-mile turf affair for three-year-olds, who have not won a stakes worth $50,000 to the winner so far this year, carries a purse of $100,000.

The first Oceanside division is headlined by a pair of runners with perfect records on the grass -- Blingo and Boat Trip. Blingo has a profile similar to 2011 Oceanside winner Mr. Commons. Both are sons of Artie Schiller trained by John Shirreffs, and both took a detour to dirt for the Triple Crown trail. Blingo's was much a shorter-lived attempt, beginning and ending with a sixth in the Grade 2 San Felipe. Subsequently reverting to turf for the first time since his debut maiden win, the well-bred gelding scored in the April 20 La Puente at Santa Anita. He disappointed back on synthetic for the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap June 3, leaving little doubt regarding his preferred surface.

The Michael Pender-trained Boat Trip was winless through his first four starts on dirt and synthetic, but has been unbeatable since switching to the turf. The Harlan's Holiday colt made it three-for-three on the green when capturing his stakes debut in the June 22 Tsunami Slew over this same one-mile trip at Hollywood Park. The respective third and fourth from the Tsunami Slew, Canuletmedowneasy and Chips All In, will take Boat Trip on again here.

The red-hot John Sadler will send out the uncoupled duo of Koast and You Know I Know, while Simon Callaghan unveils a stakes-winning recruit from Italy in Facoltoso, and Bob Baffert is represented by Midnight Crooner, a full brother to Grade 1 victor Midnight Interlude.

The second Oceanside division features one of last season's most prominent juveniles on synthetic, Majestic City, who is on a retrieval mission. The Peter Miller pupil won his first three starts, including the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship and Willard Proctor Memorial, and placed in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity (demoted from second to third for interference) and Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity in his two-turn bow.

Then everything went awry for Majestic City. Fading to 13th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, his first attempt on grass, the City Zip colt reverted to synthetic for the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity, where he tired to 10th. Majestic City was then sidelined by a bone chip in an ankle, and in his comeback from surgery, he finished a solid third in a June 3 turf sprint allowance. He reportedly didn't ship well when trekking to Charles Town for the June 30 Red Legend Stakes, winding up sixth in his only dirt try, but is eligible to regroup in this spot.

Sadler is again double-handed, this time with an arguably stronger pair of Holy Candy and Stoney Fleece. Holy Candy will be trying turf for the first time, but the son of Candy Ride is bred to handle a wide variety of surfaces, and Sadler won the 2010 Oceanside with another first-time turfer by Candy Ride, Twirling Candy. One of the better-regarded maiden winners of the Santa Anita meet, Holy Candy went on to finish fourth in the Grade 1 Blue Grass and third in the Affirmed.  Stoney Fleece is a two-time stakes winner on turf, with scores in the Grade 3 Generous last November and the May 12 Alcatraz, and the Cal-bred comes off a near-miss in the June 9 Silky Sullivan.

Other contenders include recent allowance winners Old Time Hockey and My Best Brother; Tones, who beat Stoney Fleece earlier this season in the Baffle; and Derby trail veteran Longview Drive.

The Oceanside divisions are a double opening act on the $7,775,000 stakes schedule, highlighted by the track's signature race, the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic on August 26. The Pacific Classic undercard also includes the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien Stakes for sprinters and the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile on the turf.

New for this year is a linkage with the Oak Tree Racing Association, whose longstanding ties to Santa Anita have ended. Del Mar has renamed the Palomar Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile turf stakes for distaffers, in honor of the Yellow Ribbon, the marquee race for the same division at the now-defunct Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita. Oak Tree is contributing toward the $250,000 purse of the revamped Yellow Ribbon, which now inherits the Grade 2 status of the Palomar as well as its Labor Day slot.

Oak Tree is also assisting with the purses for a newly-minted pair of two-year-old turf stakes, designed as stepping stones to their respective Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf races. The $100,000 Oak Tree Juvenile Fillies Turf is scheduled for September 3, Yellow Ribbon Day, while the $100,000 Oak Tree Juvenile Turf will be a supporting event on closing day, September 5.

Anchoring the closing-day card is the Del Mar Futurity, the seventh and final Grade 1 race of the season. The other top-level events are next Saturday's Eddie Read on turf; the Bing Crosby for sprinters on July 29, honoring the legendary crooner who was the track's founding father; the Clement L. Hirsch for fillies and mares on August 4; the Del Mar Oaks for sophomore fillies on turf on August 18; the aforementioned Pacific Classic; and the Del Mar Debutante for juvenile fillies on September 1.

Last season, Del Mar offered the richest overnight purse schedule in the country -- and in the history of California -- at more than $400,000 per day. When all figures were included for the seven-week session, total daily average purses registered in at $630,000. The track plans on offering higher overall purses for its 2012 meeting.

Del Mar is bringing back its "Ship and Win" program, with an enhancement, after its successful launch last year. In 2011, the track guaranteed that all horses racing at the meet who had started outside California in their previous outings a check for $1,000, plus a further bonus of 20 percent added to whatever purse monies they won in that first local start. This year's enhanced version of the program still will offer the $1,000 checks to horses who qualify, but additionally will up the purse bonus to 25 percent.

Once again the $1,000 payment will apply to any starter in any race at Del Mar, including its full list of 43 advertised and overnight stakes. The 25 percent purse bonus, however, counts only toward general overnight purses, meaning all stakes races are excluded.

The Thoroughbred Owners of California are again serving as partners with Del Mar in support of the program, which helped to boost field size.

New recruits eligible for "Ship and Win" incentives will be offered in a brand new Del Mar Paddock Sale on July 22, when race-ready horses will be sold following the day's races, at approximately 6:30 p.m. (PDT). The idea behind the event is to bring out-of-state horses onto the Del Mar/California racing scene and to introduce new owners to the business in one-stop-shopping fashion.

Another novelty for the 75th anniversary season is a new starter. Del Mar has tapped veteran gateman John Lopez to serve as its starter in place of regular starter Gary Brinson, who will miss the season as he deals with a family illness.

Lopez, who brings 35 years of gate experience to the job, including 26 at Del Mar, was hired last week by Del Mar Thoroughbred Club President Joe Harper after he had consulted with Brinson, Del Mar's racing secretary Tom Robbins and other knowledgeable racing officials.

"Gary's unfortunate situation at this time put us in a tough spot, but we got a good man to fill the bill," Harper said. "John Lopez's extended experience -- and the fact that he's been a starter before -- gave him the edge to run the starting gate this summer. And he'll be helped greatly by the fact that virtually the entire crew from last season again will be working with him."

Lopez, 54, has worked at every race meet in Southern California as well as most of the fair tracks in the north. He served as starter for the 2009 Fairplex Park meeting when regular starter Jay Slender was sidelined due to knee surgery.

Brinson noted that missing the Del Mar meet after 14 consecutive summers as its starter was very difficult for him.

"But when it came down to it, my sick father (former trainer Ross Brinson) needed me and my family always comes first," he stated. "I'll miss Del Mar dearly, but I'm needed elsewhere. And they promised me I'd have my job back next year."

Harper confirmed that Lopez's hiring was for the 2012 season only with the intention of returning Brinson to the starter's role in 2013.


Saratoga kicks off 2012 season

The nation's finest horses, top jockeys and best trainers will once again gather in upstate New York when historic Saratoga Race Course commences its 144th season of racing on Friday, with the Grade 1, $1 million Travers the centerpiece of a glittering 40-day meet that runs through Labor Day, September 3.

Battling for the H. Allen Jerkens training title -- won in 2011 for the second straight year by Todd Pletcher -- will be the leading conditioners on The New York Racing Association (NYRA) circuit as well as a sizeable contingent from around the country. Making their presence felt will be New York-based Christophe Clement, Linda Rice, Kiaran McLaughlin and Chad Brown, along with Hall of Famers Bill Mott, Shug McGaughey and Nick Zito, and perennial Spa habitues H. Graham Motion, Hall of Famers Jonathan Sheppard and D. Wayne Lukas, Ken McPeek, Steve Asmussen, and Dale Romans, trainer of Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap winner Shackleford.

Coming in from Chicago this year is top conditioner Wayne Catalano, who trained 2006 and 2008 juvenile filly champions Dreaming of Anna and She Be Wild, respectively. Other new faces in for the meet include Canada's Josie Carroll, New Orleans-based Bernie Flint, the mid-Atlantic's Jason Servis, and Kelly Breen, trainer of classic winner Ruler on Ice. Mark Casse (Canada), Eoin Harty (California), Mike Trombetta (mid-Atlantic), and Kentucky's Al Stall, Ian Wilkes and Charles Lopresti are among those returning for another season. Also returning to the Spa with a string will be Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

The always-fierce competition for the Angel Cordero Jr. riding title will gain an added edge this year with the arrival of top southern California jockey Joel Rosario. Winner of the Santa Anita riding title for the second straight year in 2012, Rosario will be building up his New York business over the next month as he prepares to take on a jockey colony that includes two-time reigning Eclipse champion Ramon Dominguez, recent arrival Rosie Napravik, Javier Castellano, Julien Leparoux, Cornelio Velasquez and Rajiv Maragh, along with two-time defending Saratoga champion and newly minted Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who is expected to return from a broken collarbone at some point before or during the meet.

The first two of 54 stakes -- good for at least one stakes races every live racing day -- are the Grade 3, $150,000 Schuylerville for two-year-old fillies and the Grade 3, $100,000 James Marvin for sprinters on opening day, with the Grade 1, $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks for three-year-old fillies set for Saturday.

The Grade 1 parade continues with the $600,000 Diana on July 28; the $750,000 Whitney Handicap, newly joined by the $300,000 Prioress, on August 4; the $400,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap on August 5; the $600,000 Alabama and the $600,000 Sword Dancer on August 18; the $150,000 New York Turf Writers' Cup steeplechase on August 23, and the $500,000 Ballerina in its new spot on August 24.

On the stellar card supporting the "Midsummer Derby" on Travers Day is the Grade 1, $500,000 King's Bishop for three-year-old sprinters, the Grade 1, $500,000 Test for three-year-old filly sprinters, and the Grade 2, $250,000 Ballston Spa for turf fillies and mares. The Travers will be broadcast live by the NBC Sports Group as one of five live "Summer at Saratoga" shows that start on August 11 and go through September 1. Additionally, MSG+ will be airing live broadcasts on two Saturdays during the meet -- July 28 and August 4.

The meet's home stretch includes a quartet of prestigious Grade 1s: the $600,000 Personal Ensign on August 26; the $750,000 Woodward and the $500,000 Forego on September 1, and the $300,000 Spinaway on September 2, with the Grade 2, $300,000 Hopeful and the Grade 3, $150,000 Glens Falls bringing the meet to a close on Labor Day.

The Whitney, the Ballerina, the Personal Ensign and the Hopeful are all automatic qualifying races into the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Santa Anita in November.

After opening day, live racing will be conducted every day except Tuesdays, with a first race post time of 1 p.m. (EDT) save for Travers Day (11:35 a.m.), Labor Day (12:30 p.m.) and 2:30 p.m. for the two "Party at the Spa" Fridays, July 27 and August 31.

Friday's James Marvin, a seven-furlong dash and graded for the first time, features multiple Grade 1 winner Jackson Bend, who won the race last year en route to capturing the Forego on closing weekend of the 2011 meet. The Nick Zito trainee has won the Grade 1 Carter Handicap and Grade 3 Hal's Hope this term, but was a dull fifth in the Metropolitan last time.

Caixa Eletronica, sixth behind Jackson Bend in last year's James Marvin, is a two-time Grade 2 winner this season having taken the 1 1/8-mile Charles Town Classic and the six-furlong True North Handicap. Another potential threat is Grade 3 Vernon O. Underwood winner Pacific Ocean, who might have been in need of a race when a tiring sixth in the June 9 True North following a six-month layoff.

All seven of the juvenile fillies in Friday's six-furlong Schuylerville exit maiden wins. Baby J debuts for new trainer Rick Dutrow following a swift win at Belmont in late June, and is joined by fellow Belmont graduates Can't Explain, Sweet Shirley Mae, Fully Living and Mr Hall's Opus. Churchill invader Brown Eyes Blue will be saddled by Dale Romans, while Parx shipper So Many Ways enters off an eight-length debut win for Tony Dutrow.



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