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