09/04/2014 2:08PM

Del Mar meet ends with green turf course, lower numbers

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DEL MAR, Calif. – In years past, when Del Mar got down to the end of its season, the infield turf course often looked brown and barren. So, it was the great irony of this most tumultuous of Del Mar seasons that, when the 36-day meet ended Wednesday, a course that had been the source of so much attention and controversy looked better than ever – green, lush, and inviting.

The meeting could be divided into two halves. The beginning was one gut punch after another, with catastrophic injuries that caused two suspensions of turf racing, the second suspension for more than a week. Del Mar was struggling, and executives were fielding calls from fans who had been misinformed that the track itself – not just the turf course – was closed.

“That took a while to play itself out,” Joe Harper, the track’s president and chief executive, said after the final race Wednesday night.

Yet Del Mar did rebound with a sensational second half of the season that featured a bravura performance by Shared Belief in the Pacific Classic and safe, exciting turf racing. But the first-half setbacks could not be entirely overcome by the meet’s end, and Del Mar ended up with drops in both handle and attendance compared with a very successful 2013 season.

Overall handle was down 7.3 percent, to a daily average of $12,087,844. Ontrack handle was down 11.3 percent, to $2,174,588, a figure Harper attributed largely to several high-volume players not being here for at least part of the season.

Attendance also fell, by 6.3 percent to an average of 16,535 per day.

Daily average purses were a robust $723,000, and despite the suspension of turf-course racing, field size was similar to last year, an average of 8.8 horses per race. The track’s Ship and Win program was an unassailable success, luring 187 runners, a 26 percent increase from 2013. Top barns such as those of trainers Mark Casse, Keith Desormeaux, and Mike Stidham came here and were well represented, each winning stakes.

Harper acknowledged that the meet was a roller coaster but said, “The coaster was going up the last month, at least as far as the turf course is concerned.”

“Despite the slight downturns in attendance and handle, it was a pretty good meet,” Harper said. “The turf course, for all the attention it got early in the meet, is one of the best we’ve seen. I’ve never seen the course look like it does now after a summer of racing, and hopefully it’ll be even better in the fall.”

Del Mar will race 15 days this fall from Nov. 7-30, picking up some of the dates formerly held by Hollywood Park. Del Mar, for instance, will retain much of Hollywood Park’s autumn turf festival, with races like the Hollywood Derby and Matriarch Stakes, both Grade 1 races.

So, the turf course will again be a focal point here. Overall this summer, there were 16 equine deaths, counting racing and training, from injuries or sudden cardiac failure, on turf and Polytrack. The cluster of fatalities on the new turf course during the first two weeks of the meet still perplexes Harper.

“The jockeys were saying it was fine, which is what made it frustrating,” Harper said.

Asked if he thought a contributing factor was the condition of horses running on the course, Harper said he might want to see enhanced prerace exams for horses dropping in class or whose form looks suspicious.

“I’d take the blame if we thought the course was unsafe, but the racing-board investigators, everybody, gave it high marks,” he said. “Everybody wants to run here. Maybe taking a horse out of his stall and jogging him in the prerace exam isn’t enough. Maybe we need to find new things to inspect with.”

The fall meeting will be the final one here with Polytrack on the main track. A new dirt surface will be installed following the meet.

Rafael Bejarano ended up the meet’s leading rider, with 42 wins. It was his third straight title here. Jerry Hollendorfer and Peter Miller tied for the trainers’ title with 20 wins each. Miller won outright in 2012. This was the first tie for the trainers’ title since 1990, when there was a three-way dead heat between D. Wayne Lukas, Richard Mandella, and Bill Spawr.