Updated on 09/15/2011 12:33PM

Del Mar gets a raw deal on dates


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - California is too big. We already know that. And like most things that are too big, there never seems to be enough room. Call it the inverse law of capacity. Or, more to the point, how many two-car garages actually contain two cars?

California is too rich. Don't let the power crunch fool you. Complex economic indicators sometimes fail to account for such benign constants as a finite coastline and heavenly weather. Remember good old bankrupt Orange County just a few years ago? Even in Chapter 11, it was still Orange County. The place is rolling in dough today.

Because California is too big and too rich and brimming with possibilities, it tends to attract a lot of people from faraway places. Places like New York and London. Tokyo and Seoul. Or even Louisville and Toronto, where racetrack companies took one look at the year-round California racing calendar and headed west in a heartbeat.

The California racing calendar is a creature of evolution, mutating into its present form through decades of nuture and neglect, trial and error. It accomplishes little to linger over the past, although it never hurts to recall that those of us born around mid-20th century grew up in a California with no Sunday racing and a gap between meets that felt as long as Lent.

There was nothing on the betting menu beyond win, place, show, and daily double betting. But there was indoor plumbing.

Since the late 1960's, the calendar has been steadily changing. Racing in the fall was added, then Sunday racing, then year-round racing, both north and south. Today there is a seamless season, on-track and off.

For the past few years, sober analysts (as well as a few hysterics) have zeroed in on the calendar as the root of all California racing problems. The calendar is blamed for small fields, customer exhaustion, media apathy, and just about everything else this side of the seven-year itch.

Even this reporter, when allowed an opinion, has wondered about the aesthetics of a second meet at a deserted Hollywood Park in December, an L.A. County Fair meet breaking the momentum between Del Mar and Oak Tree, or a northern California fair circuit that seizes nearly three months of choice summer dates from Golden Gate and Bay Meadows.

Now comes the California Horse Racing Board, the body that assigns all racing dates, weighing in with modifications to the California calendar. The CHRB Race Dates Committee has offered up a 2002 calendar that would include 555 days of Thoroughbred racing at five racetracks and nine fairs. There are trims here and there, with ban on many six-day racing weeks and the addition of a two-day binge of turf racing at Bay Meadows in mid-July. This would give grass runners something to do during the fairs besides eat the darned stuff.

"The committee feels that there is a serious problem in California with short fields and that this has exasperated our fan decline," reads a press release from the Dates Committee. The word they were looking for was probably "exacerbated," but that's nit-picking. No one would argue that the whole issue is cause for exasperation.

The Dates Committee met on Friday to present their ideas to the public. After that, the full board will take up the calendar and etch the 2002 dates in stone. Beyond the use of a dictionary, committee members concede that their task has been difficult and that they are not expecting any gratitude.

Nonsense. They should expect nothing less than the undying gratitude of both Churchill Downs, Inc., owner of Hollywood Park, and Magna Entertainment, owner of Santa Anita. One corporation is based out of state, the other headquartered out of the country, and yet their racing at Santa Anita (110 days) and Hollywood Park (109 days) has remained virtually unruffled by the proposed changes.

Del Mar, on the other hand, has been asked to drop its traditional closing-day program - a vibrant Wednesday that features the Del Mar Futurity - in order to create a two-day break before the Southern California season veers off to the midway and runs for 17 days at the L.A. County Fair. This is comparable to calling off Christmas so that we can more fully appreciate Boxing Day.

Racing days at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita have grown like crabgrass during the last three decades. More than doubled, as a matter of fact, while Del Mar's meet has increased by a single afternoon.

At tracks owned by out-of-state corporations such as Magna and Churchill Downs, profits beyond purses and operating costs go to their stockholders, wherever they are. Del Mar, on the other hand, is a California pureblood, through and through. Profits beyond purses and operating costs stay home in California, going toward local bond payments and facility improvements, both frontside and back.

You could say there are no stockholders in Del Mar. But you would be wrong. The entire California racing community has a vital interest in maintaining a healthy Del Mar, because - unlike Magna and Churchill Downs - Del Mar's business mandate begins and ends in California. If the racing board can't figure that out . . . now that would be exasperating.