07/15/2013 2:04PM

Del Mar opening day something to cheer about

Shigeki Kikkawa
Wednesday's crowd for opening day of the Del Mar meet could surpass last year's record of 47,339.

DEL MAR, Calif. – The first race of the Del Mar season is like none other. The massive crowd cheers heartily from start to finish when the gate opens at the start of the year’s most anticipated race meeting, the din building to a crescendo when the runners reach the stretch.

Jockeys such as Victor Espinoza notice that and thrive on it. After riding for months in front of a largely empty grandstand at Betfair Hollywood Park, he finds a raucous crowd at Del Mar is a welcome change. Espinoza won the first race of the 2010 Del Mar meeting and hopes to do so again Wednesday with the $12,500 claimer Husband’s Folly.

“It gives you a little boost,” Espinoza said. “You get more energy.”

The Del Mar meeting, which runs for 37 racing days through Sept. 4, is the racing highlight of the year for many fans as well as people directly involved in the sport.

This year, overnight purses will reach a record level, with a daily average of $650,000. Of the 43 stakes, there are seven Grade 1 races, led by the $1 million Pacific Classic over 1 1/4 miles on Aug. 25. Game On Dude, the 6-year-old gelding who has won both the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup twice in his career, is a leading contender for the Pacific Classic. He has been fourth and second in the last two runnings of the race.

Game On Dude is trained by Bob Baffert, who will contend for the title of leading trainer along with defending champion Peter Miller and John Sadler, who won the title at the Hollywood Park meeting that ended Sunday.

Rafael Bejarano, Edwin Maldonado, and Joe Talamo will compete for the riding title, which Bejarano won in 2012. Bejarano and Maldonado finished the Hollywood Park season in a tie for first with 51 wins, one more than Talamo.

Those trainers and jockeys are in action Wednesday, on a 10-race program highlighted by two divisions of the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds on turf, the sixth and ninth races.

Racing will be conducted on a Wednesday-through-Sunday basis as well as on Labor Day, Sept. 2. Average field size could surpass the 8.66 runners per race from 2012. There are 98 horses entered for Wednesday’s 10-race program, but there will be fewer starters since five races were oversubscribed.

There will be plenty of people watching those 10 races. The opening-day crowd in 2012 reached a record 47,339. The number could be surpassed Wednesday.

For many racing fans in San Diego, Del Mar is the only live racing they see, and the locals strongly support the meeting. Fans crowd into the racetrack, located about a quarter-mile from the Pacific Ocean, for the racing, the social scene, and the track’s reputation as a party venue.

“It’s got a life of its own,” track president Joe Harper said of opening day. “It’s definitely something special.”

Del Mar has carved out a niche in the social and sporting landscape in Southern California. Start a conversation in May or June with friends about horse racing and the discussion often turns to the upcoming Del Mar season. Word of mouth has helped Del Mar grow its business in the last two decades, Harper said.

“We started a long time ago to build our brand and we marketed our venue with our product,” Harper said. “It’s become the place to be. It’s like a popular restaurant or a popular bar. Because it’s seasonal, it’s always fresh. It doesn’t get too stale.”

To ensure there are enough four-legged participants, financial incentives were put in place in 2011 to boost the horse population. Some runners were transferred to California by existing owners. In some cases, local owners went shopping for prospects in the United States and overseas.

The Ship and Win program provides $1,000 to the owner of any horse who runs at the meet that has not raced in California in the last six months and is not a first-time starter. If that horse is running in an overnight race, a 33 percent bonus is paid for prize money earned in the first start of the meeting.

“The Ship and Win has helped us get over the hump, especially with five days of racing week,” Harper said. “The horsemen have been very supportive.”

The track’s role in the sport is expanding. With the demolition of Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., scheduled for early 2014, Del Mar will have two race meetings in 2014 – the traditional summer meeting and an autumn meeting in November.

All of that is in the future. Starting Wednesday, the 2013 season will be the focus.

Espinoza, 41, is hoping for a strong season at Del Mar. A winner of more than 3,000 races, Espinoza won seven races in a day at Del Mar in 2006. He was the track’s leading rider in 2000, 2005, and 2006, and ranks seventh in career stakes wins at the track, with 73.

“I’ve always done well down there,” he said. “For some reason, I get lucky at that meeting.”

Espinoza is hoping that his luck continues, beginning at 2 p.m. Wednesday.