07/16/2012 10:54AM

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

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.