11/10/2014 11:35AM

Fall meet off to strong start

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DEL MAR, Calif. – Not having a point of reference as to how this fall meeting would unfold at Del Mar was like “having just one leg on the dock,” said Joe Harper, Del Mar’s president and chief executive. Yet three days into this 15-day voyage, the ship is steady as she goes.

Del Mar had an encouraging first weekend, with handle and attendance figures that dwarfed comparable days at Hollywood Park last year. All-sources handle, for instance, is up 23.2 percent by comparison. On Sunday, aided by a pick six carryover, Del Mar had an overall handle of $10.6 million compared with Hollywood’s $8.3 million on the corresponding Sunday a year ago, and the attendance of 7,567 was more than double the 3,491 at Hollywood.

More significantly, the numbers are superior to those from Santa Anita two weeks ago. On Oct. 26 – the Sunday preceding the Breeders’ Cup – Santa Anita had a crowd of 5,555 and handle of nearly $10.2 million.

The attendance of 9,975 and overall handle of $11.3 million on Saturday at Del Mar bettered the 8,957 and $9.8 million at Santa Anita on Saturday, Oct. 25. Nov. 1 was Breeders’ Cup Saturday.

By any sensible measure, this has been a good start for a leap into the unknown.

“We’ve established a meet in the summer,” Harper said. “People know Del Mar. But they don’t know Del Mar in November.”

This past weekend there was enough of a buzz at Del Mar that the place had some life, but it wasn’t so crowded that it was uncomfortable. And the demographics must have encouraged management. The crowd skewed younger, more like a summer day at Del Mar than a fall day at a Los Angeles-area track.

“It’s laid back, kind of happy,” said jockey Mike Smith. “The sun’s out, it’s warm, but it’s not blistering. It’s really enjoyable.”

With Hollywood closed, this is an important meeting for the Southern California circuit.

“I’m excited to be here and excited about the idea of it – another Del Mar meeting,” trainer Richard Mandella said.

One tweak already has been made. Del Mar originally planned to start at 12:30 p.m. Pacific on weekdays and noon on weekends. But with enough daylight to run nine-race cards on weekends, Del Mar has made first post 12:30 every day of the meet but Thanksgiving, when first post will be 11 a.m.

“It allows us to advertise one time for our start time and cuts down on confusion for all,” Harper said. “In the end, we are adapting and adjusting, which is what you have to do with a new venture like this.”