11/30/2015 2:48PM

Del Mar: Despite quality finish, fall meet takes hit

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DEL MAR, Calif. – Del Mar’s second fall season since the closure of Hollywood Park was, as track president Joe Harper said Sunday night after the meet ended, “a tale of two meets.”

Yes, it was the best of times, and – while not quite the worst of times – certainly a drop off from the prior year. This fall’s meet was five days longer – 20 days vs. 15 days – owing to an earlier start that was expected to help generate business because it coincided with the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland.

But instead of a spike in handle and attendance that first weekend, the opposite happened. Horsemen with Breeders’ Cup runners had scant entries locally, field sizes were down, and big players largely stayed away from the track to concentrate playing the Breeders’ Cup from home rather than at Del Mar. That resulted in sizeable dips compared to last year’s averages, and Del Mar couldn’t quite rally over the final few weeks, even though the quality of racing was outstanding the last half of the meet, especially during the closing-week turf festival.

Del Mar’s daily average handle for 20 days was $9,786,891, compared to last year’s average of $10,327,629 for 15 days, a dip of 5.2 percent.

Ontrack attendance took a bigger hit, with an average of 6,180 fans per day compared to last year’s 9,055, a drop of 32.7 percent. The first week’s slow business, plus the lack of a blockbuster day like last year’s Hollywood Derby – when 21,889 came out to see California Chrome – were contributing factors.

Average field size was 8.13 starters per race, compared to 8.35 a year ago. Grass races averaged 8.95 runners compared to 9.11 last year.

“The first part of the meet nobody was around to enter,” Harper said. “They were all at the Breeders’ Cup, and we saw the damage at the entry booth. Once folks got back to town, entries picked up, and we got a lot of interest from the East Coast at the end of the meet. The racing the past few days was terrific.”

Harper said that having a second meet that is not during the height of the summer presents new challenges for the track in terms of luring local customers. He said that Craig Dado, the track’s vice-president of marketing, is urging a new approach.

“We’re a victim of our own success,” Harper said. “We’re viewed as a summer meeting – parties, fun in the sun – and no matter how much we tell people we’re open in the fall, we’re still known as a summer meet. So, from a business standpoint we have to make adjustments. We’re going to re-evaluate our marketing. Craig Dado voiced before the summer meeting that we can’t keep going with the same marketing. It has worked well for years, but we have to keep it fresh. There are a few new challenges out there for us.”

Of particular comfort to Harper is that both the main track and turf course performed well, with an excellent safety record and high praise from trainers and jockeys.

Rafael Bejarano won the riding title with 20 victories, two more than Santiago Gonzalez. Doug O’Neill led all trainers with 15 wins, two more than both Phil D’Amato and Peter Miller.