12/02/2015 3:10PM

Hovdey: Del Mar fall meet not an endless summer


Most racetracks would kill for Del Mar’s numbers, especially at a time of year when the Breeders’ Cup has come and gone and thoughts have turned to just about anything other than horse racing.

Bemoaning the fact that the average daily handle dipped to just below $10 million for the meet that ended last Sunday seems the height of ingratitude. The Del Mar figure was twice the $4.9 million average posted by the Churchill Downs meet that ran concurrently. Clearly, horseplayers liked what they saw and bet what they could.

The product on the racetrack could not have been much better. After a dreary start during which no fewer than 35 Southern California trainers were preoccupied with the Breeders’ Cup, the Del Mar sport rebounded with energy, as field size came within shouting distance of its average summertime stats.

But in its heart of hearts, deep in its DNA, Del Mar’s prime directive is not about handle or field size or agonizing over shareholder value. Del Mar is about the live crowd, the sight of people pressing the paddock rails and filling the grandstand. Even in November.

An average crowd of around 6,000 a day, with weekdays in the threes, will not cut it at Del Mar. Del Mar is too important to what remains of Southern California’s major league image to let the live gate slip to the depths tolerated by Hollywood Park management in its waning years.

The West is nearing the end of its second season without Hollywood Park, and still the effects of the trauma linger. Santa Anita has yet to come to terms with its lengthened winter-spring meet and the challenge of maintaining a turf course. Los Alamitos is chafing in its role as the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, plugging a few small holes in the calendar that are economically unviable. Fairplex Park is dead to racing. The San Luis Rey Downs Training Center is a drive and a half away and needs more stalls.

But back to Del Mar and its late season meet, which concluded with a stakes feast that any fan could savor. The Hollywood Derby went to Glen Hill Farm’s Chiropractor, so named because of the monumental efforts to get the horse to the races at all after a spinal-cord injury as a foal had vets recommending euthanasia, while the Matriarch supplied a 65-1 shocker from Stormy Lucy and Kent Desormeaux in the face of a powerful Eastern invasion.

It is the policy of this column to rarely dispense promotional advice to racetrack operators. As someone raised in the era of tube sock giveaways, marketing is clearly an acquired taste.

But when it was announced last year that the late Del Mar dates would be christened the “Bing Crosby Meet,” with an array of stakes races named for prehistoric show biz personalities, an eyebrow was reluctantly raised. This was not the breezy, come-for-the-scene, stay-for-the-horses Del Mar that made the summer sizzle.

The Del Mar marketers were trying to wrap their origins as the track Bing built around the reputation of Hollywood Park as a mecca for movie stars and a history of glitz. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s reputation had faded long before the racetrack closed. And the last time Der Bingle made a dent in the music world he once dominated was 1977 when he did that very weird “Little Drummer Boy” duet with David Bowie on Crosby’s network Christmas show.

Saddling the meet with the antiquated Crosby theme could not be entirely blamed for the sagging attendance. The Breeders’ Cup overlap sucked all the air out of the room early, and there was no California Chrome to pump the gate on the final weekend, as he did last year.

For all the good the Crosby label did, the season might as well have been fronted by British reality show/fitness freak Charlotte Crosby (her latest DVD is called “Bum Blitz”), or hockey star Sidney Crosby (a natural fit with the San Diego Gulls of the American Hockey League), or Hall of Fame rocker David Crosby, whose “Helplessly Hoping” from Crosby, Stills and Nash could kick off the day’s racing instead of Bing’s “Where the Turf Meets the Surf.”

As long as history is no object, my favorite Crosby was Harry, a charter member of the Lost Generation of American expatriates who made Europe their sybaritic playground in the 1920s. Harry Crosby was a war hero, a poet, and a publisher who spent an admirable share of his family’s fortune on legendary parties at an old mill he purchased near Paris, where celebrity guests (Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Salvador Dali) played drunk donkey polo (the riders, not the donkeys) and indulged in group activities that were frowned upon by the morally inclined.

Then again, Harry was also an opium addict who killed himself at 31 in a murder-suicide pact with his mistress. So maybe David Crosby is a better idea.

“We got away from our identity a little,” said Joe Harper, Del Mar’s head man. “Maybe the ads for the fall meet should have a good-looking couple changing their summer clothes for some stylish autumn fashion with the message, ‘The party’s still going.’ ”

Whatever they come up with, Del Mar does not need to cling to anything that had anything to do with Hollywood Park, or even with its own distant past. Of all the directions to go these days, back is not the one.