11/05/2014 11:22AM

Del Mar opens November meeting with nod to Hollywood roots

Benoit & Associates
Del Mar's four-week autumn meet will replace racing dates from Hollywood Park, which closed last December.

All that is familiar about Del Mar will be new when the track opens its 15-day autumn meeting Friday.

Famous for its summer meeting, Del Mar has added a four-week meeting this month, replacing racing dates previously held at Hollywood Park, which closed last December. For racing fans, horsemen, track executives, and everyone else, the autumn meeting starts with questions.

Will customers make their way to the track at a time when schools are in session and vacations are rare? Will owners and trainers support a meeting with a smaller purse structure than the summer season? Can track executives sell the venue in November as well as the summer?

“My feeling right now is curiosity more than anything else,” track president Joe Harper said this week.

The track has tapped its Hollywood roots to give the meeting an identity. The meeting is called the “Bing Crosby Season” in honor of the track’s founder, with seven stakes named after 20th-century entertainers. There are a dozen stakes formerly run at Hollywood Park, some of which have been renamed. Two familiar Grade 1 races from Hollywood Park’s past are the richest events of the meeting at $300,000 each – the Hollywood Derby on Nov. 29 and the Matriarch Stakes on Nov. 30.

:: DEL MAR OPENING DAY: Get PPs, watch Friday's card live

Harper said attendance and handle figures are projected at 50 percent of summertime business, which this year had an average daily all-sources handle of $12,087,844 and attendance of 16,535. Those figures were down 7 and 6 percent from 2013.

That means Friday’s opening day could draw a crowd of around 20,000 instead of the more than 40,000 people who jammed opening day in the summer, a strain on customer resources and conveniences.

“Our expectations are all over the board,” Harper said. “We’d be happy if we could do about half of what we did in the summer. Purses are good. I think it will be a good meeting. There is enough interest and excitement to make it a success.”

Del Mar has a purse structure for the autumn meeting equal to what was offered at the Santa Anita autumn meeting but lower than its summer season. There will be less racing than the summer meeting, which ran five days a week. The autumn meeting has a three-day opening weekend and three weeks of racing Thursdays through Sundays, including Thanksgiving, Nov. 27.

The 2 p.m. Pacific start is gone for the autumn. Racing will begin at 12:30 p.m. on weekdays and noon on weekends to finish before the earlier sunset at this time of year.

For Friday’s opening day, 80 horses were entered for a nine-race program, with four horses on also-eligible lists. The day’s feature race is the $75,000 Kathryn Crosby Stakes over a mile on turf for fillies and mares. There are nine graded stakes during the meeting, the first being the $100,000 Bob Hope Stakes, a Grade 3 for 2-year-olds over seven furlongs Nov. 15. The race previously was run as the Hollywood Prevue.

The Kathryn Crosby Stakes is the first of nine grass stakes. During the summer, the track suspended turf racing on two occasions because of concern over the condition of the course. Harper said the course has thrived in the nine weeks since the summer meeting.

“As much sun as we’ve had, that thing is growing,” he said. “The grass is long, and the roots are long.”

Track officials told the California Horse Racing Board in September that the marketing budget is $1.7 million for this month’s meeting.

“We’ll do all that we can to push this brand,” marketing director Craig Dado told the racing board.

Harper said preseason ticket sales have exceeded $1 million.

“That is surprising to me,” he said. “There is a lot of buzz in town.”