09/04/2017 11:13PM

Del Mar enjoys strong - and safe - meeting

Email
Emily Shields
Collected (right) beat Arrogate in the Pacific Classic and was voted Horse of the Meet at Del Mar.

DEL MAR, Calif. – One year after a summer season that was one of the most difficult in the track’s history, Del Mar bounced back this summer with a meeting that was up in handle, featured high-quality racing, had robust field size, and, most importantly, had a terrific safety record.

The track reported handle was up by 5.1 percent from a year ago for the 36-day season, which ended Monday, to an average of more than $12.5 million per day. Daily average ontrack attendance was 13,240, a dip of 1.5 percent.

Del Mar averaged 8.6 runners per race, well above the 8.3 average of a year ago, a significant feat racing five days per week on a circuit that usually races four days per week, and at times went down to three days per week during the elongated Santa Anita season.

And after a summer season in 2016 in which 17 horses died, most during the first four weeks of the meet, this meet was far safer. There were four fatalities in races – three on dirt, one on turf – one from a catastrophic workout injury, and a sixth horse died from an apparent cardiac episode after a routine gallop.

“Night and day,” Joe Harper, Del Mar’s president and chief executive, said Monday night when asked how he felt compared to last year. “Last year was really tough.”

Harper credited track superintendent Dennis Moore, who is in charge of the main track, and Leif Dickinson, who oversees the turf course, with being among those responsible for the improved safety record, but also cited veterinarians and trainers.

“The horsemen understand that this is a problem that is not going to go away without their cooperation,” Harper said.

Moore oversees the main track at Santa Anita, and was brought in this year to try and bring consistency to the two surfaces. He banked the turns at Del Mar so they were similar to the turns at Santa Anita, but during the early part of the meet the track played much slower than at Santa Anita, with fields being spread out as though some horses weren’t handling the dirt.

As the season progressed, the track seemed to tighten, and fields were not as spread out. Some trainers said that while the slower surface certainly lowered the incidence of catastrophic injuries, they were encountering more soft-tissue injuries. Horses who trained here seemed to have a decided advantage, something to note for the fall meeting, which begins on Nov. 1 and is highlighted by Del Mar playing host for the first time to the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 3 and 4.

Del Mar’s track was to close Thursday after training hours. The barn area reopens Oct. 22, and horses will be allowed on the track to train Oct. 23, nine days before the fall meet begins. The track opened six days in advance of the three previous fall meetings here.

The ontrack product this summer was appealing. The increased field size made for attractive gambling, and quality did not suffer, as the stakes racing featured such outstanding nationally ranked runners as Stellar Wind, Collected, and Arrogate, plus a deep group of 2-year-old males and females.

“We set the bar high,” said David Jerkens, Del Mar’s racing secretary. “Our goal was 8.5 runners per race, and we made it to 8.6. I couldn’t be happier with my staff for what we accomplished. We wanted to be as resourceful as possible and give our bettors the best product. I couldn’t be happier with how the horsemen responded.”

Richard Baltas and Phil d’Amato tied for the trainers’ title in dramatic style, with D’Amato winning the last race of the meet to pull even at 18 wins each. D’Amato won the title outright last summer. This was the first title for Baltas.

Flavien Prat was the leading rider with 35 wins, six clear of Evin Roman and Rafael Bejarano. Prat tied for the top spot last summer with Bejarano.

The brothers Kosta and Pete Hronis won more money than any other owners, their third such title over the past five summers here.

The Hronises’ mare Stellar Wind was among the stars on parade this summer. She won the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch for the second straight year and is the divisional leader among the nation’s older females. Collected, the Pacific Classic winner, was named Horse of the Meeting in a poll by media members.