10/18/2017 12:46PM

Hovdey: Del Mar puts on its face for Breeders' Cup


Denny Sparks stood at the mouth of the long, bare expanse running between the barns located a few steps from the back door of the Del Mar stable office. It was Monday morning, one week before the track would be open for training in anticipation of the first Breeders’ Cup to be presented at the seaside track, and preparations were starting to get serious.

“Don’t worry, we’ll pretty it up for the guys coming in from out of town,” said Sparks, who shares stable superintendent duties with Tom Fator and Jackie Lynn. “We’ll get the sand in here and set it up just right.”

Breeders’ Cup trainers coming from out of town for the most part will be stabled in one of the four open-air cinder-block barns stretching at a right angle to the north of the seven-furlong main-track chute. The barns have been freshly painted in the familiar Del Mar tan and with hunter green trim, while the spartan living quarters atop the tack rooms have been given a good cleaning.

The effort is sincere, and if the weather holds visitors should have no complaints. Still, in truth, the powers that be gave up the idea of making the Del Mar backstretch a showplace a long time ago. It’s the flip side of the handsome, mission-style grandstand, a funky Cannery Row at the edge of an otherwise upscale beach village paradise.

There is no grass, unless you bring your own sod, and there is a whole lot of dirt. The old adobe barns are museum-quality relics, dating back to the dawn of Del Mar in the late 1930s. There are also the pre-fab barns, all panels and metal frames, and finally the multi-purpose monstrosities, designed by the same people who build jet hangars. One of them is decorated by a giant whale.

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During the fall meet, which begins on Nov. 1, two days before Day 1 of the Breeders’ Cup, stable traffic will be considerably reduced because only about a quarter of the usual 2,000 horses are on hand. And if anyone thinks the Breeders’ Cup doesn’t have residual value, let the record show that the backstretch parking lot has been resurfaced and lined with stall markers, for maybe the first time since the invention of blacktop.

Visitors will wonder about the fences walling off the western end of the stable area. The easy answer is that those stalls are not required for the reduced autumn population. Or maybe it’s something else. Something very scary.

“During the summer meet there’s nothing going on here except racing,” Sparks said. “But during the rest of the year there are a lot of fairgrounds activities, and we have to work around some of them, like the Haunted Hayride.”

In the 10 days between the opening of the track for training and the beginning of the meet, horses training at Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup will share the fairgrounds with not only the Maniacal Magic Show starring Dr. Mayhem, but also the popular Scream Zone, described as “San Diego County’s largest haunted experience” and featuring the House of Horror, KarnEvil, and the Running Dead, as well as the Haunted Hayride.

For those less adventurous, there also will be a three-day home remodeling show, and Sunday bingo.

By now, Sparks has seen it all. Coming up under the rough-and-ready claiming outfit of Farrell “Wild Horse” Jones, he went on his own as a Southern California trainer, then later on stepped back to handle a barn full of horses for other people at the San Luis Rey Downs training center.

“My best horse was probably Battery E.,” Sparks said. “He won the Balboa Stakes right here at Del Mar, but he wouldn’t have been a Breeders’ Cup horse.”

Not so fast, Denny. The 1973 Balboa for 2-year-olds was run at 7 1/2 furlongs on the grass, as was the Del Mar Futurity, which today would fit neatly into the run-up to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Back then, however, the races were odd ducks, and the turf experiment was quickly abandoned.

Sparks took the stable superintendent job at Del Mar eight years ago, during the height of backstretch capacity that had horses practically living on top of each other. Last summer, capacity was cut back, and the breathing space was welcome.

“I think this will be a good spot for the Breeders’ Cup horses,” Sparks said of the spruced up barns. “There’s plenty of room, and the gap to the chute is just a little ways down the road.”

Trainers are usually fine as long as their horses are okay and they can get to and from the hotel without a hassle. They could care less about the neighborhood. Del Mar, for example, is bordered on the east by a trailer park and on the west by railroad tracks. That’s the Pacific Ocean on past the tracks.

Looking up from the spot where Sparks was standing, the eyeline featured tall Mexican fan palms in various stages of grooming, telephone and power lines strung above ground, and a towering red and yellow sign hard by Interstate 5 announcing the presence of the nearest coffee shop. A Denny’s.

Denny Sparks smiled at the sight.

“My advice to anyone coming here for the first time – enjoy yourself,” Sparks said. “It’s Del Mar.”