07/21/2011 7:48AM

Del Mar opening-day attendance breaks record; handle up

Benoit & Associates
A record crowd of 46,588 packed the Del Mar grandstand Wednesday for the opening day of the meet.

DEL MAR, Calif.- Opening-day attendance rose for the seventh consecutive year at Del Mar on Wednesday, with an all-time record crowd of 46,588 packing seemingly every corner of the northern San Diego County racetrack.

The ontrack attendance increased 2.8 percent from the 45,309 who attended the 2010 opening day. Those two days and the 2009 opening day crowd of 44,907 are the three highest ontrack audiences in track history.

“Every year we wonder if we can beat last year,” said track president Joe Harper.

While those 46,588 had to endure long lines to make bets and in some places for food and drinks, the handle figures were higher compared to 2010, both ontrack and throughout the nation.

The ontrack handle of $4,174,139 was an increase of 9.4 percent from 2010, while the all-sources handle, including simulcasting and account-wagering sources, was $13,234,590, a gain of 6.2 percent over 2010. The 2010 opening-day handle was down compared to 2009, but Wednesday’s handle was up $52,395 from the 2009 handle.

Even though approximately 30 percent of the audience travels from Los Angeles and Orange counties, the support from San Diegans is responsible for growth in attendance on recent opening days, Harper said.

“I think people are looking to have a good time and this is a place to do it,” he said.”This is the biggest party in San Diego. They have supported us tremendously in the last few years.

“We’ve done a good job of branding this town and we have for 15 years. The local media has been sensational. The electronic media was here from 4 a.m. and did interviews all day. There is no one in San Diego that doesn’t know we’re open.”

The 37-day meeting runs through Sept. 7. Last year, ontrack attendance averaged 17,906, a gain of 4.2 percent over 2009, boosted by popular rock concerts and the presence of eventual Horse of the Year Zenyatta, who won the Clement Hirsch Stakes. Harper is hopeful that the current meeting can keep pace.

“You’d like to think you make new fans for racing,” he said. “We’re making new fans for Del Mar. Judging from the handle we’re seeing, they’re playing the horses.”

One bet that proved popular on Wednesday was the 50-cent pick five, which drew a pool of $348,428 and paid $14,267. The bet has a 14 percent takeout, much lower than the takeout rate of 23.69 percent for bets such as the pick six and pick four.

Harper said that recent discussions have taken place among racing executives about reducing the takeout rates for exacta bets, from the current 22.68 percent to 17 percent. The takeout rate was raised 2 percent on Jan. 1, after legislation was passed last year that increased the takeout on exotic wagers and specified that the additional money should be dedicated to purses. The higher takeout angered some bettors, who called for a boycott on betting on California racing.

Harper stopped short of predicting whether there would be a reduced takeout for exacta wagering during the Del Mar meeting.

“I don’t know until we have a few more meetings,” he said. “I would like to lower it. We’ve had some discussions and we’ll consider it. I think it’s high.”