07/15/2013 2:04PM

Del Mar opening day something to cheer about

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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.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love opening day at Dmr! Let hope for a great meeting in 2013!
John Burton More than 1 year ago
What? Did my eyes read that correctly? You wrote that, after Betfair Hollywood closes down, Del Mar will have a boutique meet in the fall? That's FANtastic! I luv it! Yaeh, BABY!
JDS0810 More than 1 year ago
The very best 7 weeks of the year...good times had by all. Something to be said for "A smile on every face and a winner in each race...."
Leo Bariso More than 1 year ago
Watch out Game on Dude Dullahan is coming to run you down!
Daniel Garcia More than 1 year ago
Can't wait for the Pacific Classic!
Mike B More than 1 year ago
Go Victor! Hope you repeat the first race, opening day win...
Jordan Barnes More than 1 year ago
Where the turf meets the surf. I love this time of year.... Middle of Summer, Horses are racing, and there isn't a worry in the world. Racing at Del Mar will mean a lot this year with Hollywood closing up shop. If only other people saw the fun and excitement with wagering and handicapping.
W.G. More than 1 year ago
Given Wednesday is the day after Major League Baseball's All-Star game, Del Mar should have flip-flopped its opening day and opening Saturday features, with the Eddie Read shifted to opening day with the idea of that race possibly airing on NBC Sports Network in prime time in a one hour broadcast, most likely from 8:00-9:00 or 9:00-10:00 PM ET. Such a move on the slowest sports day of the entire year would likely have brought many more casual sports fans who normally would not watch the sport, but would that night given how little else there is in sports that day.
Greg Michaels More than 1 year ago
Nobody other than you cares about MLB all star game
Brian More than 1 year ago
Very unhelpful comment and, worse, you missed his point. He didn't say people care about the ASG (people do, by the way), but his point was that there is a void in the sporting world on Wednesday that could perhaps have been filled by horse racing. W.G.'s idea is a good one, though I fear the networks could run talking heads talking about the NFL for cheaper and draw more viewers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not a bad idea at all. If WGs idea did happen its a no lose situation. Say NBC Sports aired it and it worked, great idea. If they aired it and no one watched, oh well. Del Mar would still have their large on track crowd, and we would betting it around the country. They could do it by showing both divisions of the Oceanside, not having to alter the Stakes program.
W.G. More than 1 year ago
The Oceanside is not attractive enough a race for TV unfortunately. As great as Del Mar is, for this to be pulled off, you would have to shift the Eddie Read from the opening Saturday to opening day. This likely would work better in 2014 anyway since Del Mar is likely going to get some of the soon-to-be former Hollywood Park stakes. Perhaps for this kind of an opening day on the day after the all-Star Game, you could potentially have the Hollywood Gold Cup, A Gleam, American Oaks, Triple Bend, Affirmed/Swaps and Shoemaker Mile on that card (with in that event the Eddie Read lengthened to 1 1/2 Miles and moved to closing day and the Del Mar Handicap moved to around the time of the Arlington Million as a local prep for a new version of the Eddie Read). The Pacific Classic could be moved back to the Sunday of Labor Day weekend in that scenario while some other stakes could be adjusted as well.
W.G. More than 1 year ago
Exactly Brian: There is a MAJOR void that Wednesday that could be filled. Depending on what stakes events (if any) Del Mar gets next year from the dispersal of the Hollywood Park stakes, Del Mar could have a stakes-laden opening day that rivals Pacific Classic day later in the meet, possibly even with an all-stakes Pick 6 to open the meet on a 12 or 13-race opening day card with first post moved up an hour to 1:00 PM local time (4:00 ET). Such with six stakes could air on NBC Sports Network from 5:00-8:00 PM local time (8:00-11:00 PM ET) and give the sport a huge showcase on a day where there is little else going on in sports. This is a day this sport have never really taken advantage of that it needs to in order to build fan interest.
Mike B More than 1 year ago
DMR could run mules and still draw close to 50XL on track. All the "beautiful" people there couldn't tell the difference. It won't be on cable TV because 4x as many people will watch a bicycle race run half a day ago than a animal sport that's practically on life support.
Elijah Allison More than 1 year ago
Yea he's right nobody cares about baseball, this f**cking Del Mar were talking about here, you must not kno where the surf meets the turf
William Waters More than 1 year ago
Eli, In your comment on the Bill Currin article by Jay H., you mentioned God and his providence for each of us; now, you are dropping the (partial) F-bomb. Talk about juxtaposition!
W.G. More than 1 year ago
Greg: Doesn't matter about the all-Star game itself. The point was, that Wednesday is usually the single slowest sports day of the entire year which is why I would have for this year and next flip-flopped the Eddie Read and Oceanside (and likely beefed up the Eddie Read in the hopes of luring shippers out west for that race).