11/05/2014 3:52PM

Hovdey: Del Mar hoping 1967 was just a bad trip


Halloween might be a wrap for this year, but for a certain generation of California racing citizen there will be ghosts still swirling around for a few more days as Del Mar has its second shot at an autumn meet … after 47 years.

A rational person would think that three years shy of half a century would be more than enough water under the bridge. After all, Friday’s opening program of 15 racing days through Nov. 30 gives Del Mar a chance to stamp this part of the calendar as its very own. Thanksgiving at Del Mar? Sign me up.

But the memories of the 1967 failure linger, despite the fact that it was a far different Del Mar Racetrack 47 years ago and a dramatically different surrounding community from which to draw its patrons this time of year.

The San Diego of 1967 was an old Navy town on the rise. The population had topped 600,000, making it the second-largest city in the state. Sea World, a destination aquatic park, had been open for three years. The Triple A San Diego Padres won the Eastern Division of the Pacific Coast League. San Diego Stadium hosted its first season for the NFL Chargers. Interstate-5, the “Great Wide Road,” was nearing completion, linking San Diego to Los Angeles and beyond.

The track itself celebrated its 30th anniversary during the summer of 1967 with an average crowd of 10,028, daily average handle of just under $1 million and record purses of $1.7 million. Harry Henson took over the announcer’s job from the legendary Joe Hernandez. The 8-year-old Native Diver was the star of the meet, winning the Del Mar Handicap in track record time, while his jockey and trainer, Jerry Lambert and Buster Millerick, topped the standings.

Bully’s North, the racetrackers’ Del Mar watering hole of choice, opened in 1967, a sure sign that an October meeting would be welcomed in the little seaside community. As it turned out, the racetrackers had it all to themselves.

“You have to remember there was nothing on the east side of the freeway in 1967, and there was just barely a freeway,” said Del Mar president Joe Harper, who worked the ’67 meet for cinematographer Joe Burnham. “Nothing on the hills north of the track. The population of San Diego has sprawled to the north, in our direction.

“In those days the vast percentage of fans came to the races from Los Angeles,” Harper said. “They used to hold up the post for the first race until the train from L.A. arrived at the Del Mar depot.”

Without the summer crowd, Del Mar died. The average attendance for the 20 October dates dipped to 4,173, with an average of barely $400,000 bet each day. Track chief Donald B. Smith and marketing head Eddie Read were staring at an unmitigated financial disaster.

“Eddie would lean out of the press box and go, ‘Where is everybody?’ ” said Dan Smith, who succeeded Read as director of marketing and media. “The meet lost a million dollars. But at least the racing was good.”

It was very good. Most of the top stables in California were represented, and the list of horses winning the handful of October stakes included such nationally known performers Quicken Tree and Kissin’ George. Time to Leave, who went on to become one of the fastest fillies in the West, won twice as a 2-year-old. Ron McAnally ran his tough mare Luz del Sol three times in 20 days and won twice.

Hall of Famer Bill Hartack led the jockey colony, which included future Hall of Famers John Sellers and Don Pierce and such solid local favorites as Bill Harmatz, Miguel Yanez, Alex Maese, Bill Mahorney, and Danny Velasquez. The second race on opening day, Oct. 4, was won by a 30-year-old journeyman named Art Sherman, aboard the 12-1 shot Nasfield.

“I’ll never forget it,” said Sherman, now better known as the trainer of California Chrome. “And it’s not because I won. It’s because Freddie Robertson was killed going to the gate.”

As omens go, that was pretty stark. Barely an hour into the first day of the meet, “Fearless” Fred Robertson, 31, suffered fatal head and neck injuries when his 2-year-old filly Dublin Hearts threw a fit and sent the rider crashing to the wooden outer rail on the backstretch.

“She had a reputation as a crazy filly that no one wanted to ride,” Smith said. “But Fred would ride anything. I called the room after the race and got Hartack. He said, ‘That jock’s dead.’ ”

The autumn meet ended on Monday, Oct. 30, with a crowd of 5,313 and divisions of the Balboa Handicap won by Acknowledge (a son of Stymie) and Het’s Cadet. Del Mar did not ask the racing board for autumn dates in 1968.

It took the closure of Hollywood Park to put Del Mar back in the mix for a meet beyond its successful summer dates. Most of the runners will be shipping in for the day, and local hotels are cutting deals for business from what will be three weeks of a very transient racetrack population. Comparisons to Hollywood Park’s comparable dates will be difficult, since the L.A. track was as rich in local horse population as it was bereft of live customers.

“We’re all on a learning curve this year,” Harper said. “But we’re already getting good indications. We had more than a million dollars in pre-season sales in reservations alone. Plus I think our marketing and image has much more of a solid foothold than it did in 1967. If we can’t do better than Hollywood Park did this time of year I’ll shoot myself.”