Del Mar, Saratoga are class of field

Say the words Del Mar and Saratoga to a horseplayer and expect to see a big smile. They are the two most enjoyable race meets all year long.

Del Mar opens Wednesday and Saratoga on July 23. Anticipation of the meets and the unique atmosphere at the two racetracks cannot be duplicated. That spirit makes the two tracks great places to introduce newcomers to horse racing. Del Mar and Saratoga might be the best marketing tools going for the sport.

Years ago I attended the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program Symposium on Racing. The Del Mar marketing director gave a long spiel on all the great programs and promotions in place there. A question-and-answer period followed. The marketing director at Thistledown in Cleveland took the mic. He said all of Del Mar’s marketing ideas were well and good. But until he figured out a way to move the Pacific Ocean next to his racetrack, he didn’t stand much chance of implementing them.

There are distinct differences between the crowds at Del Mar and Saratoga. Del Mar is “California cool” personified. Gorgeous girls abound, and where there are plentiful good-looking women, good-looking men are sure to follow in a partying mood.

Saratoga is much more family oriented. Also, I find the overall racing at the Spa to be a lot stronger. For my money, there is more casual wagering in the parimutuel pools at Del Mar, and much more sophisticated action at Saratoga.

Regardless, few racetracks can compete with the demographics at Del Mar and Saratoga. Where other tracks can compete is in the quality of the racing. Horses will follow the money. Take this weekend, for example.

Guess which racetrack is hosting a $1 million purse? If you answered Delaware Park, move to the head of the class.

The $1 million Delaware Handicap, a purse fueled by slot machine profits, is headed by defending champion Unbridled Belle. Her main competition could come from Hystericalady and Spring Waltz.

The most important race of the weekend is the Man O’ War at Belmont Park, where 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin will make his turf debut. If Curlin runs well, trainer Steve Asmussen will point Curlin to the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamps. It is an ambitious plan for the best racehorse on the planet.

Meanwhile, Ellis Park and Calder are finally back on our simulcast menu. Ellis opens today, while Calder on Saturday will host its annual Summit of Speed series, featuring a bevy of outstanding sprint stakes.

• BOULDER STATION — On Thursday, Boulder Station will host a one-day sub-qualifier for the 2009 National Handicapping Championship. The entry fee is $40.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday. He can be reached at

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