07/18/2011 4:30PM

Del Mar opening with cautiously high hopes

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Mr. Commons is expected to start as the overwhelming favorite in the Oceanside, the opening-day feature.

DEL MAR, Calif. – California’s seven-week summer racing season begins Wednesday at scenic Del Mar, the coastal resort with a racetrack only yards from the Pacific Ocean.

Yet the built-in appeal of summer dates and prime location do not insulate Del Mar from the shortage of California owners and horses that led Santa Anita and Hollywood Park to scale back racing to just four days a week. Del Mar starts out on a five-day plan.

“I was pretty panicked a couple months ago,” the track’s director of racing, Tom Robbins, admitted. “We’re trying to stretch to five days instead of four. That is the challenging part.”

Del Mar is the first Southern California track to regularly schedule five days a week since last fall. Robbins, therefore, was relieved at the increased number of arrivals. He expects 2,000 horses to be stabled on track, an increase of 200 from last year.

“I am cautiously optimistic. We’re getting an earlier group to show up,” Robbins said. “We’ve got some new faces, and some old faces with better numbers than in the past, trying to take advantage of the incentive program.”

DEL MAR OPENER: Oceanside Stakes video preview - watch the races live »

Del Mar offers $1,000 and a 20-percent overnight purse bonus for horses who made their most recent start out of state and have not raced in California in six months. The intent was to increase inventory, and early indications are the incentive met the objective.

New arrivals with 12 or more horses include Cash Asmussen and Dallas Keen from Texas; Vann Belvoir from Washington; Robertino Diodoro, who recently expanded his Canada-based operation to California; Dan McFarlane, returning from Iowa; Troy Taylor from Canada; along with Kory Owns, Dean Pederson, and Tom Proctor.

The local competition is led by 2010 leader Doug O’Neill, whose Wednesday runners include leading contenders the races 1-3. “We look forward to opening day,” O’Neill said. “There is tons of excitement; it’s one of the largest crowds of the meet.” Opening-day attendance a year ago was a meet-high 45,309.

The 37-day meet is Wednesday through Sunday, with Monday racing on Sept 5. Closing day is Sept. 7. First post is 2 p.m. with first post in Fridays 4 p.m. Del Mar last summer ran 325 races, and plans this year call for 322. The final three Fridays will have seven-race cards. The total number of races could change depending on inventory, according to Robbins.

“There might be days where instead of eight races, we end up with seven. Instead of 10 on a Saturday, maybe nine,” Robbins said. “The overall numbers in Southern California are slightly ahead of projection. We’re ahead of projection, that’s the good news.”

Along with an increased number of out-of-state shippers, the daily wagering menu was expanded. Del Mar added a 50-cent pick five (races 1-5). The wager has a 14 percent takeout rate. Del Mar eliminated the consolation. The net pool will pay only to tickets with five winners. If no one hits, the pool will carry over to the next day.

Joel Rosario seeks his third straight title as leading Del Mar rider, and looks forward to Wednesday and beyond.

“Opening day is a lot of fun, but there are a lot of days at Del Mar that are a lot of fun,” Rosario said.

The stakes schedule is highlighted by the $1 million Pacific Classic Aug. 28, in which First Dude could face Sidney’s Candy. Other Grade 1’s include the Eddie Read on turf Saturday with Caracortado, the Bing Crosby for sprinters including Smiling Tiger on July 31, and the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes for fillies and mares led by Switch on Aug. 6.

In addition to the Del Mar Oaks for turf fillies Aug. 20, and Pat O’Brien for sprinters at seven furlongs on Aug. 28, the Grade 1 schedule includes two big races for 2-year-olds – the Debutante for fillies on Sept. 3, and Futurity on closing day, Sept. 7.

One gap at Del Mar is a lack of main-track stakes restricted to 3-year-olds. Two one-mile, $100,000 stakes for the division are the El Cajon on Sept. 2 and Torrey Pines for fillies on Sept. 4. For California-based 3-year-olds, the summer focus is turf.

In the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes, race 8 on Wednesday, Mr. Commons is expected to start as the overwhelming favorite in the mile grass race for 3-year-olds. Third in the Santa Anita Derby, Mr. Commons will make his first start since an eighth-place finish in the Preakness Stakes.

“We’re really anxious to see him back on the turf,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “He ran very well on turf, and training-wise he has just done great.” In his only previous start on grass, Mr. Commons won a maiden sprint at Santa Anita by more than five lengths.

Mr. Commons, sired by Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Artie Schiller, flirted with the Triple Crown series, but his connections always believed his preference was turf. In that regard, Del Mar is perfect. The Oceanside kicks off a three-race series for 3-year-olds on turf that includes the Grade 2 La Jolla Handicap Aug. 13 and Grade 2 Del Mar Derby Sept. 4.

Fort Hastings makes his U.S. debut for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Rosario has been working him. “He can finish good, that horse,” Rosario said. “He’s been training very well.”

Other principals include Arlington shipper Extensive, blinkers-on Akkadian, and lightly raced Temple’s Door.