07/16/2012 2:33PM

Del Mar opener the real change of season

Shigeki Kikkawa
Holy Candy will make his first start on grass in the Oceanside.

DEL MAR, Calif. – The calendar says summer began three weeks ago. But loyal fans of California racing know otherwise. Seasons do not change by month of the year. Seasons change according to where horses are running.

Winter always starts at Santa Anita, and spring always begins at Hollywood Park. As for summer, that starts at Del Mar on Wednesday at 2 p.m. when a raucous crowd of more than 40,000 fans cheer maiden claimers in the opening race of the 2012 summer meet.

[DEL MAR: Get PPs and watch the full opening-day card live]

“It’s one of the best meets of the year,” jockey Rafael Bejarano said.

“The best horses, they prepare for Del Mar.”

Bejarano is right. Acclamation runs July 21, Amazombie returns on July 29, and Include Me Out will start on Aug. 4. Their respective targets happen to be the first three Grade 1’s of the 37-day meet – the Eddie Read, Bing Crosby and Clement L. Hirsch.

By then, handicappers and horsemen may have adjusted to the change from Los Angeles-area tracks. “All the racetracks in California are kind of different,” Bejarano said. “Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Del Mar – they’re all different.”

Five years after Polytrack was installed, the surface remains a challenge. Del Mar track bias changes often, and is influenced by weather. The track can become speed-friendly when the temperature is cool and closer-friendly when the weather is warm.

One thing that remains consistent is prize money. “It sure helps to go down there and run for major purses,” trainer Bill Spawr said. “It’s all about the purses, all about the money.”

Spawr entered two on opening day – Palio Prince in race 2, and Private Bounty in race 7. Both have established Del Mar form.

“I still think the horses that ran well there last year will continue to do that.” Spawr said. “We claimed a lot of live horses that are primarily synthetic horses. We claimed around the idea of Del Mar.”

Private Bounty, third in all three starts at Del Mar last summer, was taken by Spawr for $16,000. He drops in class first off the claim, signaling an early trend as horsemen place horses aggressively to exploit the purse structure. The $12,500 claiming race has a purse of $28,000.

“Guys are going to be more aggressive to try to win those purses,” trainer John Sadler said. “I think you’ll see a lot of claiming.” Sadler was leading Del Mar trainer in 2008 and 2009, and is expected to be among the leaders this summer. He enters with momentum.

Sadler won three graded stakes last weekend at Hollywood with top horses likely to resurface at Del Mar. Lady of Shamrock won the American Oaks and is expected to return Aug. 18 in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks. Switch won the Grade 2 A Gleam and could run Aug. 19 in the Grade 3 Rancho Bernardo. He also won the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile with Scherer Magic, whose sights are on the Grade 2 Best Pal on Aug. 5 and Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity on closing day, Sept. 5.

In the short term, Sadler’s opening-day attention is on split divisions of the Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds at one mile on turf – races 6 and 9 on the 10-race card.

The Sadler-trained Koast faces Boat Trip in the deeper division, race 6. Sadler-trained Holy Candy is expected to start favored in the second division of the Oceanside, race 9.

Koast is running long for the first time after defeating a good field of older second-level allowance horses at six furlongs.

“I like that he rated so well his last race,” Sadler said. “He’s been running with older horses his last two starts, and beat them last time, so it’s time to find out if he can stretch out.”

Julien Leparoux, who will return to Saratoga for the opening card on Friday, rides Koast. Sadler, whose main rider was Joel Rosario before he left for New York, said allegiance to jockeys will depend on who is producing.

“Whoever’s doing best is the guy that’s going to get the mounts,” Sadler said.

Boat Trip, who won his third straight on June 22 in a $74,000 turf stakes at Hollywood, is expected to start favored for trainer Mike Pender and jockey Jose Valdivia in race 6. Midnight Crooner returns from a freshening for Bob Baffert; European import Facoltoso looms the upsetter in his U.S. debut for trainer Simon Callaghan.

The Oceanside begins the three-race series of Del Mar grass races for 3-year-olds. The Grade 2 La Jolla Handicap is Aug. 11, while the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby is Sept. 2.

Holy Candy is the horse to beat in race 9. Sadler considered starting him July 4 the Grade 2 Swaps, but passed because of the lack of pace that would have compromised Holy Candy, a closer. The Swaps was won by the front-runner. Secondly, Holy Candy’s major owner, Jenny Craig, lives nearby and is a longtime supporter of Del Mar racing.

“With Mrs. Craig and Del Mar, it’s a natural connection,” Sadler said.

“So I just opted for the Oceanside.”

The Oceanside will be the first start on turf for Holy Candy. Sadler noted that his full sister Holloween Candy was a fast turf filly, and the colt finished strongly when Sadler worked him on grass. Garrett Gomez takes over for Rosario.

Main rivals for Holy Candy include My Best Brother, who has improved since Julio Canani changed equipment two starts back, and turf allowance winner Old Time Hockey.