12/01/2014 1:07PM

Del Mar meet closes with strong numbers across the board

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Benoit & Associates
California Chrome's win in the Hollywood Derby drew a meet-high crowd of 21,889.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Del Mar on Sunday completed a wildly successful fall meeting that had strong numbers in every category a track manager could want, ranging from attendance to handle, purses to field size, to injuries.

The 15-day season, which took over part of the fall dates formerly held by Hollywood Park, had an average attendance of 9,055, an increase of 187 percent over what Hollywood Park averaged during its final season last year, and the average attendance ranks second on the Southern California circuit this year only to Del Mar’s summer meet.

Overall handle averaged $10,410,497, a 15 percent increase over what Hollywood Park did last fall.

Daily average purses were $523,000, an increase of 15 percent over what was on offer at Hollywood Park.

Field size averaged 8.35 runners per race, and the average turf field had 9.11 runners during a meet in which 36 percent of the races were run on grass.

Most gratifying, after a tumultuous summer meeting with injuries on both turf and the main track, was that not one horse suffered a catastrophic injury, on either Polytrack or turf, in racing or in training. The combination of cooler fall weather and fewer horses training regularly on the main track seemed to leave it far more consistent than during the summer, when temperatures between morning and afternoon were more diverse. And the turf course, installed before the summer meet, held up well this fall throughout extensive use.

Combined with outstanding weather throughout, it was a “dream meet on steroids,” Joe Harper, the track’s chief executive and president, said Sunday night.

“What will be forever in my mind is the feeling we had from the get-go,” Harper said. “There wasn’t the crammed feeling you have sometimes during the summer meet, which is like a big party. We’ve all been to enough parties where at some point, you’re looking for the quiet room. This was the quiet room.”

The presence of California Chrome in the Hollywood Derby on Saturday “put a storybook ending on the meet,” Harper said. California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, was making his turf debut in the Hollywood Derby, winning by two lengths and earning a 96 Beyer Speed Figure. He helped bring in a meet-high crowd of 21,889 for his final start of the year and his fourth Grade 1 win of 2014.

“I haven’t seen a crowd react to a horse like that around here since Zenyatta, or Cigar, or going back to when John Henry worked between races here. They’re crowd-pleasing horses, and they don’t come around very often. It made the meet.”

The meet had positive buzz throughout, unlike the summer, when the specter of injuries hovered over the first half of the season. But as good as the Polytrack performed this fall, the decision was made earlier this year to remove the surface – which was installed in 2007 – and return to dirt prior to next summer’s season.

Harper said the reason for going back to dirt was the same reason for going to synthetic seven years ago – to have similar surfaces on this circuit. Hollywood Park and its synthetic surface are gone, and Santa Anita was the first of the major tracks to return to dirt from synthetic. In addition, Los Alamitos, which like Del Mar and Santa Anita picked up some dates previously held by Hollywood Park, has a dirt surface.

The material being installed at Del Mar, known as El Segundo sand, is the same material now in use at Santa Anita.

“We start work on the track next week,” Harper said.

This year’s meet encompassed 15 days over four weeks. Next year’s meet is one week longer, starting one weekend earlier, which means Del Mar will be the live local track while the Breeders’ Cup races are being held at Keeneland on Oct. 30-31.

“Judging by this meet, I think we can certainly handle five weeks, and I think being five weeks, you’ll see a lot more trainers stay here rather than ship in for the day,” Harper said.

Victor Espinoza wound up the leading rider, prevailing by one win over Elvis Trujillo. Espinoza owns three titles during the summer meet. Peter Miller was the leading trainer. He has one outright summer title and shared the top spot this past summer with Jerry Hollendorfer.