Updated on 09/15/2011 1:37PM

Big fields, split stakes for opening day


DEL MAR, Calif. - Discerning horseplayers will see beyond the obvious attributes of picturesque Del Mar racetrack, and welcome the 43-day summer racing season Wednesday with arms wide open.

Pleasant weather, breezy ambience, and soothing narrative from track announcer Trevor Denman provide enough gratification for an afternoon. But Del Mar is a racetrack after all, and ultimately the meet will be judged by what transpires between the rails. Based on the opening-day card, it could a memorable summer.

Fields average 10 starters per race; quality is outstanding. The only three claiming races offer full fields of winners, and the $75,000 Oceanside Stakes - a mile turf race for 3-year-olds ? split into two divisions (races 5 and 8) with 11 entrants each. Dr. Park heads the second and stronger half. Kela, possibly the best 3-year-old on the card, runs in a first-condition allowance (race 7).

There are no soft spots at Del Mar, and six-day-a-week racing (Wednesday through Monday) requires fresh horses. "You can't take a horse to Del Mar that already has run 10 times this year," said trainer Julio Canani, who starts comebacking chalk Premiere Creation in race 2. "You have to have a fresh horse."

The Canani-trained Tranquility Lake makes her third start of the year Saturday in the meet's first Grade 1, the Ramona Handicap, while lightly campaigned sprinters Kona Gold and Caller One meet Sunday in the Bing Crosby Handicap. Other highlights include the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 19; Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante for 2-year-old fillies Aug. 26; and Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity for 2-year-olds closing day, Sept. 5.

Much of the focus will be on 2-year-olds, but the meet also offers an intriguing series of grass stakes for 3-year-olds, beginning with split divisions of the Oceanside. In race 8, Dr. Park tries to redeem himself after a "soft" turf course compromised him May 28 in a stakes at Lone Star. "The horse labored over it," said trainer John Sadler, "He couldn't handle the going, and finished second only because he's a good horse."

In fact, Dr. Park's dead-heat win April 20 in the Grade 3 Will Rogers overqualifies him for the Oceanside. He shared the winner's purse, however, and earned only $43,920. The Oceanside is restricted to horses who have not won $50,000 this year, a clause that typically disallows graded stakes winners. Sadler understated the obvious: "I fit the conditions perfectly."

Dr. Park's form was flattered by the horses he faced at Lone Star. The winner, Royal Spy, and third-place finisher Baptize each returned to win their next start. One mile may be Dr. Park's optimum distance, and the horse has trained well for his return. Main rivals for Dr. Park include improving Our Main Man, and front-runners So Urgent, Macabe, and Broadway Moon. While Dr. Park is obvious in race 8, the first division of the Oceanside (race 5) is both weaker and more mystifying.

The race invites the prospect of another in a long line of French imports scoring a Del Mar upset. Venator arrived one week ago from France after well-respected bloodstock agent Hubert Guy picked him out for Garaventa Family Trust and trainer Ron Ellis.

"What we're asking him to do - running him right off the plane - is not easy, but he's a gamer," Ellis said. He added: "[Chris] McCarron worked him five-eighths and said he worked great. He's a pretty smart horse, he's adapted really well, and [Guy] thinks he has a shot."

Venator also is supported by a powerful Del Mar handicapping angle. Over the last 15 seasons, some 133 imports from France have made their U.S. debut at Del Mar. No fewer than 24 have won (18 percent), and exorbitant payoffs have resulted in a return on investment of $2.74 for each $2 win bet. Venator's principal rivals Wednesday include Mister Approval, Dancing Master, and Mr Freckles.

Kela, who earned a 106 Beyer Speed Figure winning a maiden sprint last out, will be heavily favored in race 6, the first leg of Del Mar's new $1 pick four. Trained by Eduardo Inda, Kela is facing winners and running long for the first time. "Two turns should be no problem, he's been asking for distance when I work him," Inda said. "He's been finishing well."

As for the whole Del Mar experience, Inda enters with optimism. "We should do well here. You want to do good everywhere, but at Del Mar, all the owners are here, and everybody is on vacation."

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