09/06/2016 1:06PM

Del Mar finishes meet with flurry of business

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DEL MAR, Calif. – The Del Mar summer season that ended on Monday featured some of the best stakes racing in the track’s history, which propelled the track’s business to a strong finish, but not enough to make up for a sluggish start, leaving Del Mar’s average all-sources handle and attendance below those of the prior summer.

In addition, Del Mar had a rash of equine fatalities that caused animal rights protesters to speak out last month at a California Horse Racing Board meeting, and several, carrying placards, protested outside the track on Monday.

“There’s always mixed emotions when the meet ends,” Joe Harper, Del Mar’s president and chief executive, said after Monday’s closing-day card. “We finished with a flourish after our business was down at the beginning. I feel positive about the way we finished.

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“On the negative side was the number of horse injuries at the beginning of the meet.”

Harper said Del Mar would have more time next summer between the end of the San Diego County Fair, which is held on these grounds ending July 4, and the beginning of the race season, which will give the track more time to get its racing surface ready.

In addition, Harper said Del Mar would cut back the number of horses allowed to stable on the grounds, from 2,060 this year to approximately 1,800 next summer. He said he believes San Luis Rey Downs, Galway Downs, and Los Alamitos cumulatively can handle the excess while Santa Anita gets its annual summer hiatus.

“It’s too many horses,” Harper said. “Even with three renovation breaks, the track gets chewed up pretty good.”

Del Mar also has a fall meeting, this year from Nov. 11 to Dec. 4, but most horses ship in for a few days to run, as opposed to relocating for the meet, as is common in the summer.

Last fall, there were no equine fatalities. At this summer’s meeting, there were 17, including Chasing Aces in the Del Mar Futurity on Monday, which was the only fatality after Aug. 21. There were nine equine fatalities at the 2015 summer meeting.

Those fatalities came despite Del Mar using additional veterinarians for pre-race examinations. Asked if he had confidence in the track superintendent, Steven Wood, Harper said, “I do, 100 percent.”

Wood, previously an assistant, took over the top job this year. Richard Tedesco, who had the job, is now a consultant. Tedesco had taken over from Steve Wood, Wood’s father, who was the track superintendent for years, including when Del Mar moved from dirt to synthetic a decade ago. Del Mar ripped out Polytrack and moved back to dirt in 2015, with Tedesco having taken over by then.

“You look for the smoking gun, but there isn’t one,” Harper said of the spate of injuries. “We’ve had two fall meets without one horse being (euthanized).”

This is the third straight year in which Del Mar will have two meetings, summer and fall, since the closing of Hollywood Park in 2013. Handle and attendance at the summer meetings have declined each year.

Handle for the smmer meet this year averaged $11,930,398 per day, compared to $12,075,325 last summer, a dip of 1.2 percent.

Attendance averaged 13,447 per day, compared to 14,469 last summer, a drop of 7 percent.

In 2013, the last year Del Mar raced solely in the summer, handle averaged $13,033,536 per day, and attendance averaged 17,656.

There were 39 days of racing this summer, 40 last summer, and 37 in 2013.

Despite the dips, Del Mar still has the best attendance and handle figures in California.

Field size, after a slow start, rebounded significantly over the final weeks to average 8.31 per race, including 8.73 per race since Pacific Classic Day, Aug. 20, and 9.34 per race the final week.

The stakes racing was sensational, highlighted by California Chrome’s powerful victory in the Pacific Classic. He also won the San Diego Handicap, and was the unanimous choice of media members as Horse of the Meet. The Pacific Classic Day handle of $25,126,232 was a single-day Del Mar record.

Other racing highlights included Stellar Wind’s narrow victory over Beholder in the Clement Hirsch in a battle of Eclipse Award-winning females, dazzling sprint victories by Lord Nelson in the Bing Crosby and Masochistic in the Pat O’Brien, and the emergence of Klimt as the West’s best 2-year-old colt via victories in the Best Pal and Del Mar Futurity.

Midnight Storm won both the Eddie Read and the Del Mar Mile, two of the 23 victories for Phil D’Amato that helped him claim his first Del Mar training title. His mentor, the late Mike Mitchell, won seven titles, most recently in 2011.

Rafael Bejarano and Flavien Prat tied for leading rider, with 38 wins each. The only other time that happened at Del Mar was in 1950, with Johnny Longden and Bill Shoemaker. It was the sixth summer title for Bejarano, and the first for Prat.