07/16/2012 10:54AM

Hovdey: Del Mar brings out the West Coast's big guns

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Amazombie won the Potrero Grande at Santa Anita in April with Mike Smith aboard. He will make his next start in the $300,000 Bing Crosby on July 29 at Del Mar.

For those unfamiliar with what California racing is up against these days, before the hotly anticipated summer season at Del Mar could open its doors Wednesday the track first had to wait for the Crossroads of the West Gun Show to clear out of Pat O’Brien Hall, just across the entry road from the clubhouse gates.

Such is the world in which Del Mar lives as the flagship tenant of a multi-use fairgrounds owned by the state of California. The gun show is only one of many narrowly targeted (sorry about that) events that set up shop during the 45 weeks each year when there is no Thoroughbred racing.

Admission to the Del Mar gun show was $12 (children under 12 were free). Admission to the racetrack clubhouse is $10 ($20 on opening day). Among the prohibited items at the gun show were “pornographic material, drug paraphernalia, loaded firearms, loose ammo, and anything glorifying Nazism,” which made me wonder if items glorifying logical positivism would be okay.

Patrons attending the Del Mar races are not allowed to bring frisbees, balloons, whistles, balls, or “any objects that are likely to frighten the horses.” It was unclear whether or not the sight of a swastika printed on a skin tight tank top would fall into that category, but I’d hate to be the one to find out.

[DEL MAR: Get PPs and watch the full opening-day card live]

You can light up at Del Mar – there are designated areas – but there was no smoking allowed at the gun show. I said that out loud several times – “No smoking at the gun show . . . no smoking at the gun show” – before I figured out where I’d heard it before, or at least a variation on the theme, from the movie “Dr. Stangelove”:

“You can’t fight here. This is the War Room!”

As of Sunday, the four-legged ammo living on the other side of the street from the gun show crowd was beginning to gather in force. Doug O’Neill’s ramrod Leandro Mora had bedded down a bunch in the barn where I’ll Have Another lived last summer. Richard Mandella was across the way, hoping for another Soul of the Matter or Siphon to emerge. Around on the backside, the crews of John Sadler, John Shirreffs, and Bob Baffert, among others, were setting up shop for the 37 days of racing ahead.

Those three trainers will square off in the first – and possibly tougher – division of the restricted Oceanside Stakes on opening day. Shirreffs, who won the Oceanside last year with Mr. Commons, puts La Puente Stakes winner Blingo back on the grass for Ann and Jerry Moss while Sadler, who won the 2010 Oceanside with Twirling Candy, counters with Koast, winner of three of four grass starts, and You Know I Know, who won his maiden on turf in his last start. Baffert will go at them with Midnight Crooner, a half-brother to last year’s narrow Del Mar Derby runner-up, Midnight Interlude.

Since most of the 40,000 or so in attendance Wednesday will be looking at each other more than the horses, the Del Mar racing office is wise not to waste a major event. Those races begin Saturday with the $300,000 Eddie Read Stakes, in which 2011 Eclipse Award older male champion Acclamation will defend his title, and continue the following weekend when 2011 Eclipse Award sprint champ Amazombie runs in the $300,000 Bing Crosby on July 29.

Both Acclamation and Amazombie have a lot of work to do if they are going put up any kind of defense of their championship belts. Acclamation has run only once this year, winning the Charlie Whittingham Memorial at Hollywood Park, while Amazombie has run just three times – finishing third in the San Carlos, winning the Potrero Grande at Santa Anita, and then finishing a game second in the Churchill Downs Stakes in Louisville.

That last one looked even better a few weeks later when Shackleford, who beat Amazombie a length in Kentucky, came back to win the Met Mile. Bill Spawr, who trains and owns Amazombie in partnership with Tom Sanford, exercised the better part of valor and gave his champ time off after the Churchill Downs for very good behavior.

“He ran a big race that day,” Spawr said. “And you know, he didn’t act himself the whole time he was back there. He was too aggressive and way too tough. He was pulling leaving the gate, then he went with that other horse, kind of like he was trying to get it over with.”

Here Spawr lowered his voice.

“But that’s a good horse,” he said, the way old school trainers do when “good” means a whole lot more. He was referring to Shackleford.

Amazombie clinched his championship last year with late season wins in the Ancient Title at Santa Anita and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs.

“When he was back there for the Breeders’ Cup, he was very mellow,” Spawr noted. “That’s when he runs his best. And that’s why I gave him a little time. Look at him – he’s really good right now.”

Amazombie has no reason not to be mellow. The object of Spawr’s affection was wading around the deep straw of his double-wide sun pen in the wide alley between two of Del Mar’s old adobe barns. A blue tarp was stretched across the top of Amazombie’s pen to provide shade on what was turning out to be a perfect beach day. Spawr unlatched the pen gate and his champ wandered over, first nipping at his trainer’s shoe then going for a visitor’s shirt.

“Hey, knock it off,” Spawr said.

Amazombie took half a step back, satisfied.

“We put him out here at nine o’clock when we’re done every day,” Spawr said. “He loves it. And I swear he’s got a watch on his paw or something, because at nine o’clock sharp he’ll start hollering.”

After four seasons, 26 starts, 11 wins, and 11 placings for for Spawr, Amazombie qualifies as a fan favorite and bonifide equine celebrity. He admits to 6 now, but doesn’t act it.

“Did you notice his halter?” Spawr asked, indicating the shiny brass nameplate on which was inscribed “Amazombei.” Oops.

“We didn’t notice it until we got back to Kentucky before the Breeders’ Cup,” Spawr said. “We got a new one made, but then he went and won the race. After that, I said I think we better keep using the old one.”

He was talking about the halter.

Morris More than 1 year ago
belmont racetrack should be torn down , piece by piece & moved to wv, & rebuilt( if they can find a level place big enough for it). live racing @ saratoga, should be replaced with ,instant racing,& dacshand racing. that way all the bleeding hearts can have something warm & cuddlie, to hold & take on over after the races. that should satisfy everbody. the bleeding heart can all go to the spa, & cron over the race winners. & leave horse racing to the people who still LOVE IT. wish a good day to all, "an ole railbird"
Ronnie Malo Rodriguez More than 1 year ago
Maybe you should retire.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When cali returns to dirt everywhere the racing will improve. Look at the 3yos this past spring at SA. They wound up being the best in the land, by a wide margain. We can be great again. As far as NY racing, I'm a fan, but there cards are often poor, also. Belmont's closing day card was a travesty. Emerald Downs had better racing that day.
Ronnie Malo Rodriguez More than 1 year ago
Well the real racing starts now in Saratoga. Bigger fields and purses. We have the best filly and mare division on the East Coast. DelMar never been there, but if its anything like the tracks during triple crown races. That Sucks. BTW What makes Belmonts card a travesty? That you can't hit a race there? You always seem to be putting Belmont down. The prices are good, some days not great but far from poor. We had the Suburban, which was probably the best Handicap race this year. What did you guys out west give us, a watered down Hollywood Gold Cup?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And Saratoga's got full fields, too. Del Mar drew a good opening day card, but Thursday's card is atrocious, with the same 5 and 6-horse fields they always seem to get. Saratoga drew very well for Friday, and I imagine the weekend cards will be the same. Plus, even with limited 2YO fields, that allows for more 2YO racing more often. But I disagree with the assessment of Belmont's finale. The fields drew pretty full. They always make the most of what they have, and compare Sundays card with what it would have looked like 3-4 years ago, and you'd see this weekend was a step up from what it had been previously. I'll take that over a string of 5 and 6-horse fields, looking at Del Mar's Thursday card.
Bsb Jaws More than 1 year ago
Del Mar has 9 horses per race friday & Saratoga has 9.3 LOL. Enjoy that extra 1/3 of a horse you're going to have to handicap each race. LOL.
Ronnie Malo Rodriguez More than 1 year ago
Emerald Downs better racing, not even on the worst day at Belmont. You're trippin dude.
Leonard Martinez More than 1 year ago
Are uou kidding me dude, tha Hollywood Gold Cup featured the best horse in the country in Game On Dude and the much Classy and well traveled Richards Kid who would be ghe main attraction in any other Hcp race in the country, as far as the Suburban it featured a bunch of over hyped past their prime horses, the only good thing was watching MMM who is 4yrs old and is trying to make a name for himself, you pit MMM against GOD and RK and he is no match. At least the West Coast
Ronnie Malo Rodriguez More than 1 year ago
The hollywood gold cup had no competition. The same trainer had to enter another horse from his barn to make it a halfway competitive race. Richards kid is an older horse who will not win the classic, beat a bunch of scrubs in the pacific classic a few years ago, and wouldv'e gotten smoked in the suburban.. Game on Dude has to prove he's number one that'll have to wait until BC day. He's got home court but I won't be surprised if Ron the Greek runs him down late. BTW RTG was beaten by MMM earlier this year. MMM is a 4 year old and is better than Richards kid dude. He still needs to prove himself at 1 1/4 but he's much better now than he was at 3.
y2camdoe More than 1 year ago
Why would you expect a great card on closing day when Saratoga starts 5 days later?
Bsb Jaws More than 1 year ago
Are you from South America ? Cali is in South America. You're not from California . Californians don't refer to their home stae as cali.
Saw Mill Worker More than 1 year ago
Must admit you can't find a bigger crowd of gooding women then at Del Mar. Then back to normal for the actual races. Short fields and 80% of cheap races. Now that's the world of reality of racing not only in CA but everywhere.
Paul_Tuon More than 1 year ago
Del Mar knew that big crowd is expected and yet they put a mediocre card for them to see. Logic dictates that whenever you have big crowd at your event you want to put on a good show so that they have good time and thus they're willing to come back. But instead Del Mar saved big races for Saturday when less crowd is expected. I see the logic in Del Mar's thinking.
Paul_Tuon More than 1 year ago
I meant to say I DON'T see the logic ......
Dan More than 1 year ago
Big crowd but not a big handle
Big Jeff More than 1 year ago
Did you read?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
" big crowd but not a big handle" quoted for truth
Bsb Jaws More than 1 year ago
Nice prediction Dip Stick !!
nysteve27 More than 1 year ago
Such a shame for the California crowd to open it's premier meet with at least 4 bottom level claiming races with the same horses going at it again that did last month at Hollywood. A grade 1 race at $300,000 is disgraceful, unless of course the year is 1982. Poor California horse racing has fallen to a very low level, where is Bobby Frankel and Skimming to save the day. I would even take a Candy Ride at this point, as long as it was on real dirt. Best thing about Del Mar, besides the wonderful crowds and weather, is that Saratoga is only 2 days behind........
bryan More than 1 year ago
At least California racing stands on its own, although its precarious. New York and elsewhere that depend upon casinos must at times feel as if there collective necks are stretched a bit thin, no? Should current economic conditions hold or worsen, I fear as precarious as California's position may be, they will at least still be standing on their own.
nysteve27 More than 1 year ago
Take no offense, I would give my right arm to see the racing at California's premier meet to equal that of Keenland or Saratoga but facts are facts. Take away the state bred races in both places and you have about 60 horses at Del Mar running on opening day that could not even make it into the condition book at Saratoga. That is why I say it is a shame, because althoough I am only in my mid 40's. I sure can't remember that being the case years ago.....and as far as where the money is coming from...I do not really care, I am only a customer looking for the best product. Standing on their own with a marginal product, does not increase revenues. Sorry, it's just business......
bryan More than 1 year ago
I never said the racing was better at Del Mar. Clearly Saratoga has always been the pinnacle of the American turf. And with the casino revenues it will only be better. But how long before the state government realizes two things. First, that the money could be better spent elsewhere and two, when the casino revenues flatten out, as they surely will, the politcos will try to eliminate the competition. It is no coincidence that the New York Timer began its witchunt recently.
Bsb Jaws More than 1 year ago
Ha Ha Ha ! Be serious : ) Its a wednesday . The card always looks like that for the opener. I had a $32 horse in a 16000 claimer the last time I went for the opener. I saw Vindication break his Mdn one time on the opener. It was the case years ago, its always been the case. They've been running the same stakes on the opener forever . It often is split into divisions and it often produces some pretty good horses. I'll pretty much bet there isn't a thunderstorm ! LOL.
Bsb Jaws More than 1 year ago
LOL . Ya you want to take away the state breds ;-) Hehehe... because you don't have State Breds like Acclamation, AmaZombie, Best Pal , Bertrando, Lava Man ,TiZnow, Snow Chief, California Flag etc etc etc. . Any NY bred Eclipse winners last year ? Name one good NY bred EVER & don't say Funnycide .LOL. He wasn't a NY bred anymore than Smarty Jones was a Penn bred. Hee He Hee ... I dare you to try to match me Ny bred for Cal bred !!!! LOL. I'll even give you Funnycide.
Bsb Jaws More than 1 year ago
In my 41 years of following racing I don't think I can remember one NY bred ever winning a race in Calfornia .;-) I can probably name Cal breds that invaded NY or the eastern seaboard for half the night. LOL.
Joe Tartaglia More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure I understand why that makes California racing or the Del Mar meet better. I am a New Yorker and admit that there are several issues with NY racing at the moment, but the casino will help give the fan a better product...eventually. Thats what all of these racinos are doing. While its nice to think that Calif. racing is staying true to tradition and it's roots, change ain't so bad either.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
so Racinos r giving us a better product? cheap claimers running now for 30k lol since racing is now ( in some places ) being supported by Racinos means it's only a matter of time b4 racing goes the way of the dinosauer's Girl_Trouble
Ronnie Malo Rodriguez More than 1 year ago
where have you been the game has already changed. The only dinosaurs are the bleeding hearts who can't stand change. Delmar lovers hating on NY Racing. We're on I PADS wagering on races dude. Theres no OTB anymore simulcasts are norm. More money is better fields, but it doesn't matter a player is a player no matter what turn the game takes.
Ronnie Malo Rodriguez More than 1 year ago
You might be standing on your own, but you need to slap the people that agreed to change all those stakes names. Miss the old Delmar although I won't hate on california racing. They gave us the Futurity last year with CC IHA which came back to be the dominant colts they became. Still remember Dare and Go running by Cigar in the Pacific Classic, Alphabet Soup was a favorite of mine. Saratoga is gonna have better racing this summer, but I will still play Delmar because they have horse races, and thats what we bet on.
Bsb Jaws More than 1 year ago
Whats the matter Steve . No response smart guy.
Paul_Tuon More than 1 year ago
"Most of the 40,000 or so in attendance Wednesday will be looking at each other more than the horses" Jay, what are saying? Are you saying those 40k+ race fans are out for a social dating event and not for horse betting? Had I known that I'd be among those 40k+ people then. lol!!!!!!!!
Kevin Smith More than 1 year ago
You need to be at Gulfstream....the number one question i get there is...." so where do they run?"
Big Jeff More than 1 year ago
Outstanding comment
Mike B More than 1 year ago
Where the turf meets the surf, down at ol Del Mar Take a train, take a plane, take a car There's a smile on every face, and a winner in each race Where the turf meets the surf, at Del Mar
Big Jeff More than 1 year ago
Mixer Mike B?