07/13/2016 10:06AM

Del Mar forecast: Fair with a clash of champions

Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome (above) and Beholder are expected to meet in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 20.

The forecast for weather and racing conditions favors the Del Mar summer meeting that begins Friday.

Turf racing resumes in Southern California following the closure of the Santa Anita course for renovation June 19. There are four turf races on Friday’s 10-race program.

The popular champions California Chrome and Beholder are scheduled to run in major stakes in July, building toward an expected first meeting in the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 20. Those dates are circled on the calendars of their die-hard supporters.

The weather outlook is much improved from last year’s opening weekend, which was hit by two days of rain thanks to the remnants of a Pacific Ocean hurricane. There are no hurricanes in the neighborhood this weekend.

“Talk about taking the wind out of your sail,” track president Joe Harper said on Tuesday, reflecting on last year’s weather.

“I was driving to the track one morning, and a lightning bolt hit a palm tree,” he said. “That was a first for Del Mar.”

The 2015 season was hurt by the wet opening weekend and finished with declines in average attendance and handle compared to 2014. The decline in betting led to an overpayment of the purse pool in excess of $1 million. For the upcoming season, overnight purses have been reduced by approximately 10 percent.

Harper expects to lower the purse deficit but is reluctant to predict what kind of business the summer meeting will have. The 39-day meet closes Sept. 5, Labor Day.

“We’re playing catch-up to the purses,” he said. “If we do well and our purses stay at the rate we are, we’ll get close to even.”

There is no shortage of race-ready horses for the meet. Friday’s program drew 118 entries, including 13 also-eligibles.

In the last 10 days, the track has undergone its annual transformation from the location of the San Diego County Fair in late June and early July to the home of a race meeting. The project requires the removal of everything from Ferris wheels to temporary food stands to the installation of landscaping and grooming of the racetrack. Horses began arriving last weekend.

“The flowers have been planted, and the place doesn’t look as much like a fair,” Harper said. “It’s a short turnover, and it’s working fine.”

In recent years, the meet has opened on a Wednesday or Thursday. This will be the first opening day on a Friday since 1970.

There were 40,304 customers on opening day last July, a Thursday, compared to the previous year’s 42,021. The record of 47,339 was set on a Wednesday in 2012. Opening day of the summer meeting has drawn a crowd of at least 40,000 since 2005.

The track may draw a bumper crowd next month if California Chrome and Beholder meet in the Pacific Classic.

“We’ve been pushing that Chrome will be here,” Harper said. “He’s probably the best in the world at the moment. It would be an amazing race if they could get together in the Pacific Classic. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”