07/19/2010 3:45PM

Del Mar opener still a beach party, but horse shortage a concern

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Benoit & Associates
"The one and only truly fabulous hat contest" livened up last year's opening day.

DEL MAR, Calif. – The breezy Del Mar atmosphere always feels fresh when California racing goes south for summer.

“We’re spoiled by the whole Del Mar experience,” trainer John Sadler admitted. “The restaurants, the beach, the weather, the environment – it’s just a fun meet that everybody looks forward to.”

It is easy for him to say. After all, Sadler ran away with the Del Mar training title the last two summers, and when the 2010 meet begins Wednesday with the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds, Sadler will unveil a potential freak.

Twirling Candy, 2 for 2 including an allowance romp, stretches to one mile and tries a switch to grass. Is it too much to ask? Not according to Sadler. “I think he’ll love two turns,” Sadler said. “The grass is kind of an unknown, but Candy Rides run on anything.”

After 19 years of being split, the Oceanside, the traditional opening-day stakes, will for the second consecutive year be run as one division.

“We’re starting a new tradition,” Del Mar’s director of racing, Tom Robbins said. It may also reflect the shortage of horses.

Del Mar lopped six days (43 to 37) from its 2009 schedule, racing five days a week rather than six. The Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule helped the track maintain an average field size of 8.56 starters. That will be difficult to match. Available horse inventory in Southern California is down more than 25 percent, from 3,800 horses a year ago to 2,800.

“The numbers are down,” Robbins said. “We knew that going in, and we actually were concerned.” The worry is compounded by ambitious scheduling of 10-race cards at Hollywood Park and Del Mar. Hollywood ran 10 races the final two days of its meet, Del Mar will run 10 races opening day, and 10 races are scheduled for this Saturday and Sunday.

Not long ago, most horsemen wanted to be at Del Mar. This year, Robbins said the stables are “not as filled up as we have been in the past.” Del Mar historically has 2,200 horses on the grounds. This year there will be an estimated 1,900.

Some horsemen are remaining at Hollywood Park and monitoring the Polytrack surface at Del Mar before committing to a start.

“They are waiting to see,” Robbins said.

That includes unbeaten Zenyatta, whose status for the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch Stakes on Aug. 7 will depend on trainer John Shirreffs’ opinion of the surface. The 2010 meet is the fourth with Polytrack, and first under the direction of new track superintendent Richard Tedesco.

Others are planning to run, including Bob Baffert, whose Richard’s Kid will try to win the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic for a second straight year. Third in the Hollywood Gold Cup in his comeback, Baffert said Richard’s Kid will have another start leading to the Pacific Classic on Aug. 28.

“He likes to run, and he’ll run again [before the Pacific Classic],” Baffert said, naming two options – the Grade 3 Cougar II Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on July 30, and the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on July 31.

Baffert and Sadler enter summer with the deepest stables on the circuit. Along with Richard’s Kid, Baffert trains a deep roster of 2-year-olds including debut-winning colts Smash and D’pendable. Grade 3 winner El Brujo has joined the stable and will try to make noise in the sprint division.

The top sprinter in California currently is Sadler-trained Cost of Freedom, scheduled to run Aug. 1 in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes. Sadler also trains 2-year-old filly Dawnie Macho, winner of the Landaluce Stakes, and Swaps Stakes runner-up Sidney’s Candy.

Sadler led the standings by a 31-16 margin last summer at Del Mar, but he enters 2010 with realistic expectations.

“I don’t think we have the stock we had last year, but you never know,” he said.

Other highlights include the Grade 1 Eddie Read Stakes on Saturday at 1 1/8 miles on turf, and the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks for 3-year-old turf fillies on Aug. 21. The Grade 1 Darley Debutante for 2-year-old fillies is Sept. 4, and the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity has returned to its traditional closing-day spot on Sept. 8.

A major change in the Del Mar wagering menu is the lowered minimum bet for the pick four that covers the final races on the card. Previously a $1 minimum, the bet will be offered this summer in 50-cent increments.

The reduction makes the wager more affordable, and reduces tax liability. At 50 cents, winning bets are not “declared income” requirements to the Internal Revenue Service unless it pays $600 or higher (equivalent to $1,200 for $1). The 25 percent withholding applies to $5,000 payouts (equivalent to $10,000 for $1.)

As for the opening-day Oceanside, Twirling Candy can win if he avoids a duel with likely pacesetter Macias. Baffert said Macias “is so one-dimensional, if someone goes with him, we’re doomed. He goes so fast early.”