09/06/2001 12:00AM

Handle sets record; attendance up


DEL MAR, Calif. - Del Mar rose above the climate of increasingly poor economic news, setting a record for average daily overall handle, and showing a gain in ontrack attendance for its 43-day meeting, which ended Wednesday.

Del Mar averaged $12,055,415 per day in handle, up 3 percent from last year's $11,736,073. The ontrack attendance was up sharply, by 9 percent, from 14,252 last year to 15,546 this year.

"The ontrack attendance being up more than 8 percent is really nice," said Joe Harper, Del Mar's president and general manager. "It shows that things we are doing seem to be working - the concerts, the way we market the plant."

Friday night concerts with acts like Pete Yorn and Echo and the Bunnymen may have helped swell the attendance, but Del Mar's handle figures can be attributed to the outstanding racing that was presented here. Horsemen vied for a record $22,107,660 in purses.

The Southern California circuit has suffered from a horse shortage most of the year, yet Del Mar was able to put on programs with deep, contentious fields, every weekend. Weekdays often were weaker, suffering from the six-day-a-week schedule.

The racing office seemed energized by the gung-ho attitude of Rick Hammerle, who was Del Mar's assistant racing secretary for the first time this summer.

"The field size rose from 8.34 per race to 8.48, which doesn't sound significant, but up is up, and it is the highest in California," said Tom Robbins, Del Mar's director of racing and racing secretary.

Del Mar's 2-year-old division was the deepest here in years, highlighted by Officer and Habibti, whom trainer Bob Baffert sent out to victories in the Del Mar Futurity and Del Mar Debutante.

Baffert was the meet's leading trainer, for the fifth straight season, with 29 victories, 11 more than Bobby Frankel. Bill Spawr and Jack Carava had 15 wins apiece.

Alex Solis outdueled Laffit Pincay Jr. to win the jockey title by 36-34.

Other racing highlights included Skimming's repeat victory in the Pacific Classic, champion sprinter Kona Gold's popular triumph over Caller One in the Bing Crosby Handicap, El Corredor's victories in the Pat O'Brien and Del Mar Breeders' Cup handicaps, and wins in graded stakes on both turf and dirt by Tranquility Lake.

The main track received few complaints, and the turf course was in good shape until the final days, when the summer-long drought caused large chucks of turf to get dislodged during races. "Even trainers who weren't doing well were reluctant to blame the track," said Harper, who makes the rounds on a pony every morning.