09/05/2007 11:00PM

Del Mar wraps on positive note

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DEL MAR, Calif. - He suffered the slings and arrows of horseplayers who were initially flummoxed by the new Polytrack surface, and by trainers and owners who confronted him over its inconsistency from the morning until the afternoon. But after Del Mar on Wednesday concluded its first season racing on Polytrack, Joe Harper, Del Mar's president and general manager, was all smiles, not only because of his belief that Polytrack was a success, but for the overall business his track did during its 43-day season.

Polytrack "did everything we hoped it would do and a little more," Harper said.

First and foremost was a reduction in the casualty rate. Eighteen horses died as a result of injuries incurred racing or training at Del Mar last year, compared with 11 this year.

"Zero would have been nice on the breakdowns, but it was nice just to see that big a reduction," Harper said.

In addition, though trainers said Polytrack produced different injuries from year's past, most notably sore backs, the attrition rate was reduced.

"The numbers of horses who are still here and still racing are way up," Harper said. "That was everything. This track proved it was capable of helping a horse. Small injuries don't turn into big ones."

Harper said Del Mar's management team would examine data compiled during the meet to see if there are any changes that need to be made regarding the Polytrack surface before next year's season.

"I do not want to do anything to this track that will compromise its safety," Harper said. "If there are tweaks we can make to make it safer, we'll do that. But if the tweaks make it faster but not safer, we won't."

The number of starters increased slightly, from 8.5 per race last year to 8.6 this year. The final five days of the meet, fields averaged 9.6 starters per race.

Favorites won 31.1 percent of the time, and were in the money 66.6 percent of the time, figures comparable to what is seen everywhere else in North America.

Bettors sent it in. The average daily all-sources handle on Del Mar's races was just shy of $14 million per day - $13,987,295 - an increase of 3.3 percent from last year. A total of $22,482,320 was bet on closing day Wednesday, fueled by a two-day pick six carryover that attracted $5,063,435 in fresh pick six money.

"I'm happy the handle was up as much as it was," Harper said. "One of the concerns we had was that people would back off. But based on the percentage of winning favorites, it seems handicappers got a pretty good hold of it."

Attendance also was up slightly, to 16,719 per day from last year's 16,658.

Michael Baze, who led the rider standings at Hollywood Park, repeated at Del Mar. He had 50 winners, 13 more than second-place Joe Talamo.

Doug O'Neill was the leading trainer with 23 wins, 4 more than Jeff Mullins, though Mullins started less than half the number of horses (77 to 164) O'Neill did.

After Market, who won Eddie Read Handicap and Del Mar Handicap on turf, was voted horse of the meeting by local media members.