As California Chrome continues to rest after a grueling trail that saw the 3-year-old colt fail to win the Triple Crown, thoroughbred horse racing soldiers on.
And while tracks across America continue to struggle, some relying on the casino industry to survive, such is not the case at Del Mar. The seaside track 20 miles north of San Diego is doing just fine. And as it opens its summer race meet today, it does so with a bright and optimistic future.
Del Mar, celebrating its 75th anniversary, recently was awarded the 2017 Breeders’ Cup, a two-day, 14-race extravaganza that features the best horses in the world. Del Mar is also going to run a fall meet from Nov. 7 to 30, picking up dates after Hollywood Park closed last year.
There’s a new turf course that is wider and can accommodate 14-horse fields. The main track, which has been a Polytrack synthetic surface, will revert back to dirt for 2015.
For Joe Harper, Del Mar president and CEO, these are exciting times. Attendance was up slightly in 2013 with an average daily crowd of 17,656. The betting handle was up 5.2 percent in 2013, as the daily handle was $13,003,536.
“We’re very proud of what we do, but we never take ourselves for granted,” Harper said. “We know how quickly things can change. Back in 1988, when simulcasting began in California, our on-track attendance dropped 25 percent, and it took us a long time to build it back.
“But we’re looking forward to a great summer meet, and we’re excited about the fall meet and, of course, hosting the Breeders’ Cup.”
The summer meet runs through Sept. 3. But opening day is always special at Del Mar. It’s an energized atmosphere as old friends get reacquainted, women show up in their best dresses and hats, and trainers and jockeys arrive with newfound optimism. Along with the high-caliber racing — 43 stakes races will be contested offering more than $8 million in prize money — the track also will continue to have postrace concerts, giveaways and other promotions.
“At Del Mar, it’s about the brand,” Harper said. “People have come to expect a good time when they come to the track, and we’re very service-conscious. We want everyone to have a good time and enjoy their day with us.”
Del Mar has been a traditional escape from the summer heat for Las Vegans. It can be 30 to 40 degrees cooler some days, a welcome relief from summer’s triple-digit temperatures.
”We have a longstanding relationship with Vegas,” Harper said. “We have a lot of friends from Nevada, and we look forward to seeing them every year.”
Many probably will show up Aug. 24, the day of the $1 million Pacific Classic, Del Mar’s showcase race. The 1¼-mile race for 3-year-olds and upward no doubt will attract a competitive field.
There was hope that California Chrome would come to Del Mar. But according to his trainer, Art Sherman, the horse is being pointed toward a return after Del Mar in preparation for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. One possibility is at Los Alamitos, his home track, in September.
Another possibility is the Awesome Again Stakes on Sept. 27 at Santa Anita. The 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up is part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series and is also a “Win and You’re In” entry into the Classic, in which the winner gets an automatic spot and the Breeders’ Cup picks up the $100,000 entry fee.
Del Mar rejected a demand from Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, California Chrome’s co-owners, to be paid $50,000 just to have the horse show up at Del Mar on Pacific Classic day and parade in front of the grandstand.
But with or without California Chrome, fans will show up at Del Mar. They always do.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarp.