07/19/2017 11:22PM

Despite smaller crowd, Del Mar officials content with safely run opener

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Benoit & Associates
Horses leave the gate in the first race at Del Mar on July 19, 2017.

DEL MAR, Calif. – A safely run racing day more than offset a downward spike in on-track attendance on opening day Wednesday for Joe Harper, Del Mar’s president and chief executive.

“It was a good day. Couldn’t be happier,” Harper said in the press box to a group of media members after the final race on Wednesday. “Everyone got around safely. That was number one.”

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Indeed, after a summer season one year ago in which Del Mar was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, this meet has been very safe early on, both in the mornings preceding the start of racing and during the first racing day itself.

Del Mar has set high standards for its opening day on-track attendance, so even though 34,128 showed up, it was the smallest opener since 2001, and the first time the opening-day attendance dipped below 40,000 since 2004. Still, the attendance was the third-largest on the Southern California circuit this racing season, behind the 46,514 at Santa Anita for its opener last Dec. 26, and the 36,155 who attended the Santa Anita Derby.

“If I’m going to have to make excuses for 30-some-thousand people being at the track, I’m at a loss,” Harper said. “This is one of those crowds that’s all social driven. I’m delighted to get that crowd.”

The overall handle was $14,221,951, compared to $16,374,230 last year, $15,339,177 in 2015, and $14.8 million in 2014.

Del Mar is hoping for a big day on Saturday, with Arrogate, the best horse in the world, competing in the San Diego Handicap. Harper said Del Mar will be giving away a poster of Arrogate to patrons.

Arrogate will be racing over a main track that has played fairly slow, but very safely, since opening for training on Saturday morning. Del Mar has hired Dennis Moore, the track superintendent at Santa Anita, to oversee the main track, affording consistency to the circuit’s surfaces, including banking the turns here in a fashion similar to Santa Anita. Harper said the base of the surface also was addressed.

“It’s more consistent all the way around,” Harper said. “There’s less change for the horses when they come here.”

Drayden Van Dyke, who rode on both the turf and dirt courses on Wednesday, said the banking of the turns was noticeable, and welcomed. More significantly, he said the kickback on the main track “was 10 times better.”

“The banking helps them get around better,” Van Dyke said. “Overall, everything was good.”

Harper said “we’ve put in checks and balances as to who gets on here,” and said outriders – four on the main track, one on the training track – have been instructed to be proactive in finding out the identity of horses who look off in the morning.

“We want to know who that horse is, now, and then we can send a vet over to find out what they have in mind,” Harper said. “They can’t just toss them out there and hope for the best.”

Rafael Bejarano, who has won or shared the riding title at the past five summer meets here, got off to a rousing start by winning four races, one more than Flavien Prat, with whom he shared the title last summer. Vladimir Cerin swept the double and was the only trainer to win more than one race.

– additional reporting by Steve Andersen