Updated on 07/21/2012 10:52AM

Del Mar opener sets record for attendance


DEL MAR, Calif. – Opening day at Del Mar has become the event of the summer in San Diego County. Not the sporting event of the summer. The event, period.

Despite premium prices for admission to the turf club, a stiff $40 charge for valet parking, $9 for a can of beer, double digits for a margarita, long lines to bet, eat, drink, and for the bathroom, and a lagging economy, fans just keep coming because opening day at Del Mar has taken on the aura as the place to be. Del Mar’s slogan is “Cool as ever.” Boy, was it ever on Wednesday.

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The crowd on Wednesday, announced as 47,339, set a single-day record for the track, eclipsing the record set last year of 46,588, also on opening day.

This marked the eighth straight year that the attendance on opening day was more than 40,000, and the eighth straight year it went up from the previous opening day.

“Opening day is a phenomenon that’s hard to describe,” Joe Harper, Del Mar’s president and chief executive officer, said as dusk fell on Wednesday night. “It’s a crazy day. It’s taken on a life of its own.

“It’s fantastic, anytime you can get over 40,000 people at any racetrack, anywhere. It’s a real plum for us.”

The overall handle was $14,176,153, an increase of 6.8 percent from last year’s $13,268,662. Ontrack, the handle was $4,288,057, which works out to a measly per capita of $90. But considering the premium pricing for turf club admission, plus the margins on food and beverage, Del Mar made out quite all right.

Operationally, “It was a fairly smooth day, for that many people,” Harper said.

“There’s no soft openings at Del Mar,” he said. “It was a party.”

It was not all roses and unicorns, though. The first equine fatality of the meet occurred in the day’s fifth race, when Playful Council, a 2-year-old ridgling, suffered a catastrophic leg fracture an eighth of a mile into the five-furlong race and had to be euthanized.

Del Mar’s main track surface is Polytrack, which was installed in 2007. Since then, Santa Anita has ended its experiment with a synthetic surface and has returned to dirt. Hollywood Park still has its synthetic Cushion Track, but that surface plays very much like dirt. As a result, Del Mar is as different from the Los Angeles-area tracks as Keeneland is from Churchill Downs.

Harper said the feedback he had received thus far on the surface was good “from the trainers I’ve talked to,” though he joked, “I can avoid some trainers.”

Rafael Bejarano and Martin Garcia, each of whom won divisions of the featured Oceanside Stakes, were the only riders to double on the card. Bejarano won the first division of the Oceanside with Midnight Crooner, while Garcia scored in the second division with My Best Brother.

Jockey Chantal Sutherland, the focal point of Del Mar’s marketing campaign, won the day’s first race. She said the noise from the packed grandstand could be heard as far away as the three-eighths pole.

“It was like an echo, and then – boom,” she said.