09/08/2003 12:00AM

Del Mar has to take step up

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DEL MAR, Calif. - On the face of it, Del Mar has life by the tail. Incomparable weather and location. A choice block of dates. Access to the finest stables the West has to offer, along with the cream of California's training and riding talent.

The local population worships Del Mar with a dedication reserved for the Rio carnivale. Neighboring businesses flourish during the meet. Summer rents are high enough to pay off mortgages and fund college educations. Yes, the traffic can be grim. But those cars carry customers, and they all eat and drink.

The 2003 Del Mar season ends on Wednesday with the Del Mar Futurity, in which the relative merits of five ambitious 2-year-olds will be tested over a distance of seven furlongs. A colt trained by Bob Baffert usually wins - he'll be going for seven straight with Cooperation - but neither Doug O'Neill (with freshly acquired Perfect Moon), Eoin Harty (with Gulf of Mexico), nor Richard Mandella (with Minister Eric and Siphonizer) are quite ready to concede.

No matter what kind of crowd turns out for closing day, the meet will be acclaimed a business success, and rightfully so. The rest of California may be suffering from all sorts of economic anxiety, but not much has trickled down to Del Mar. Average daily handle continues to grow and the live gate will show a promising increase of more than 8 percent this summer, a glowing trend in the most precious of all indicators when it comes to the health of the game.

If the Del Mar Thorougbred Club were a publicly traded company, operating under the pressure of turning a profit for its shareholders, this would be a time to celebrate. Hey everybody, give yourself raises and a pat on the back.

Del Mar, however, must be held to a somewhat different standard. As the only major California track with a California ownership (lease-holder, actually, of state-owned property), how Del Mar operates reflects directly upon the traditions and expectations of big-time California racing, even as the racing climate shifts.

That is why it is crucial for Del Mar to fix once and for all a number of ongoing deficiencies that are keeping the meet from moving to the next level and fulfilling its potential to become a true Saratoga of the West, with all that the name implies.

It is too bad that Del Mar can't use its growing clout to lobby for a longer, less frantic season, offering a more civilized five days of racing each week instead of the gruelling six.

Beyond that, Del Mar needs to resolve its shabby backside once and for all, with a comprehensive land-use plan that replaces the barn-by-barn procrastination of recent years. Unfortunately, it may be some time before financing is in place to build a Del Mar training center on the east side of Interstate 5.

Del Mar can be proud of its field sizes this summer (except for that two-horse race last Sunday - what was that?). Now, how about providing the ontrack fans with a modern tote board displaying 14 permanent betting interests and eliminating those blinking numbers where "12" should be.

Everyone needs a new Del Mar turf course installed - horses, jockeys, fans . . . even the beleaguered turf course superintendent - one that will hold up under the increasing demands of a first-class racing program.

Those one-dimensional five-furlong races, by the way, did nothing to enhance the program, while doing more than their share of damage to the grass. But at least track management has committed to erecting a videotape patrol tower dedicated exclusively to the head-on view of stretch runs on the grass.

As noted many times before, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club must play environmental politics with the local Coastal Commission and live in some kind of harmony with its landlord, the state-funded Agricultural Association. Joe Harper, Del Mar's president, must navigate a maze of California state regulatory and budget agencies to make the changes that a privately held track operator could enact overnight.

"Ronald Reagan once said that if you get in bed with a government, you'll get more than a good night's sleep," Harper said.

"There is an existing master plan that will have a lot of these things in it," he added. "Nobody wants to stop us from doing these things, and the directions we need to go are pretty clear. I don't think anyone who has a vote is against us. It's just frustrating that it takes so long to get it done."

Del Mar management has a dream of hosting a Breeders' Cup some day. This is an admirable ambition, and it would reflect well upon not only the Thoroughbred Club, but the Agricultural Association and state overlords as well. If it takes the dangling bait of a possible Breeders' Cup to inspire the necessary changes at Del Mar, that is a good thing, because the Breeders' Cup is serious business.

Summer is over. Time to go to work.