07/19/2010 5:34PM

Del Mar meeting breeds optimism


DEL MAR, Calif. – Don’t bother looking for any patterns to the moves made by the managers of the major summer race meetings during this year of lowered expectations.

For those concerned with Monmouth Park, the hope has been that considerably less will turn out to be significantly more. So far, the figures indicate that might have happened. At Saratoga, which opens Friday, fingers are crossed that more in terms of racing days will mean just that – more, across the board.

Then there is Del Mar, which opens Wednesday, where the theory is that what worked last summer – when Mondays were removed from the racing week, shrinking the meet to 36 days – will work again this year.

Even the slightest improvement in ontrack business could at least help stop the feeling that the Southern California racing product has been abandoned and that it has gone, since the last couple of weeks of the Santa Anita meet in April, largely unattended.

No one needs to belabor the built-in advantages of the Del Mar season, nor should anyone be overly dazzled by opening day, with its R-rated Easter Sunday atmosphere of hats, high heels, and heavy tans. It is a festival of excess, about as family friendly as Hef’s place, and so thoroughly covered by the local media that you would think there is nothing else going on in San Diego that day. Okay, maybe there’s not.

It is opening weekend that really sets the tone of the meet, and there will be no shortage of good racing to entertain racing fans stripped down to their sunblock and Tommy Bahamas, beginning on Saturday with the $300,000 Eddie Read and then on Sunday in the $150,000 San Clemente.

Jim Cassidy has bullets for both, but you can forgive him if he was feeling a little lonely last weekend, with his full complement of 32 horses bedded down at the beach. Not that anyone would want to, but you could have shot a cannon through the Del Mar backstretch three days before the opener and hit a whole lot more empty stalls than not. Whether or not this portends downsized participation, late arrivals, or traffic on Interstate 5 remains to be seen.

Among those present and accounted for at Del Mar were the nation’s best 3-year-old filly and 3-year-old colt, although neither one is scheduled for a date at Del Mar. Lookin At Lucky, winner of the Preakness, will get his final polishing by Bob Baffert at the seaside for the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, while Blind Luck, freshly returned from another one of her Hitchcock thrillers in the Delaware Oaks for the Jerry Hollendorfer outfit, has the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga next on her dance card.

(This has happened before. John Henry, a California landmark through five campaigns, managed to win four grass championships and Horse of the Year twice in the early 1980s without ever competing at Del Mar. Trained there like a sonofagun, though.)

If Blind Luck is the best in her division, Evening Jewel is not far behind. Jim Cassidy watched helplessly as his filly was edged by Blind Luck at Santa Anita in the Las Virgenes Stakes and then at Churchill Downs in a gut-wrenching Kentucky Oaks. To call either filly a loser after those battles was a crime.

Cassidy will be running The Usual Q.T. in the Eddie Read and Evening Jewel in the San Clemente. Rake in one hand, the trainer was threatening to perform manual labor last Sunday morning while sending forth his late gallopers. The Usual Q.T. was one of them, while Evening Jewel was already buttoned up and pouting in her stall.

“She’s not real social,” Cassidy conceded. Evening Jewel sighed. “I’m not real worried about that, though, the way she puts it on the line every time.”

That’s not the half of it. Besides her narrow losses to Blind Luck, Evening Jewel won tough fights in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland and the Honeymoon on the Hollywood grass. Cassidy and owner Tom Braly passed on the subsequent American Oaks, run July 3, but apparently they forgot to consult Evening Jewel.

“We probably should have run her, because she’s been kicking the barn down since then,” Cassidy said. “I’m all for having a fresh horse, but like Bobby Frankel told me, a good horse can hurt themselves sometimes when they’re too fresh.”

The Usual Q.T. comes into the Read off a smart allowance win on the Hollywood grass June 27, his first start since a trip last March to Dubai. It was in maiden and condition races over the Del Mar grass last summer that the gelding came of age, igniting a streak that ran to six straight wins, and now seven of his last eight on grass.

Both bred in California, neither The Usual Q.T. nor Evening Jewel sports super-model looks. Cassidy refers to them affectionately as coming in “plain brown wrappers.”

“There’s nothing really wrong with them,” Cassidy said. “It’s just that nothing stands out as a better than the rest. I kind of like that.

“Katdogawn was like that,” added the trainer, referring to his 2003 San Clemente winner. “A guy once asked what angle she looked best from, and I told him probably standing over there on that hill.”

A recent visitor of some bloodstock repute had a similar experience with Evening Jewel, who is about the length of Blind Luck’s lip from being the national division leader.

“What do you think?” prodded Cassidy.

“She’s okay, I guess,” the visitor replied. “Who is it?”

“Evening Jewel,” grinned the trainer.

The visitor answered, “Oh.”