07/13/2016 1:16PM

Hovdey: Del Mar waiting for racing room


Before plunging into the seven weeks of the tequila-fueled bacchanal better known as Del Mar, a few psychological ground rules are in order. Specifically, it is important to keep in mind what Del Mar is, and what it is not.

Del Mar is fun, no matter how “fun” is described, because Del Mar allows the mind and body to wander briefly away from the sometimes-oppressive reality of horse racing in metropolitan Los Angeles. This is what Bing Crosby had in mind when he built the place, and the mandate holds today as much as it did in 1937.

Del Mar is that rare commodity – a new-fan magnet – as a prime attraction of a summer destination surrounded by dozens of other prime attractions that suck tourists into San Diego’s corner of world.

Del Mar also is where most of the very best horses in the country will be running or training at one time or another this summer – a blasphemous idea, to be sure, in the face of the concurrent meet opening next week at Lourdes, also known as Saratoga.

Then again, when the sun crests over the low hills to the east of the track on the morning of Friday, opening day, among those creatures stretching their legs on Del Mar’s main track will be Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, undefeated champion Songbird, three-time champion Beholder, and California Chrome, a horse who needs no introduction.

Del Mar is a lot of things. It is a chance for the West Coast racing culture to bond and party like they never do the rest of the year. It is a window into how racing can be energized if compressed into a finite season of limited opportunity. It is an imperfect but welcome example of how the sport can do well when operating under the umbrella of a quasi-government agency.

One thing Del Mar definitely is not, however, is the savior of the Thoroughbred sport in Southern California, especially when it comes to the tough questions of stabling, training, and racing dates in an uncertain climate.

Los Alamitos seems destined for conversion into a shopping center in the painfully foreseeable future. Santa Anita Park is still coming to terms with its expanded calendar, which ran this year well into a hot San Gabriel Valley July. The wishful thinkers look at Del Mar, empty of horses for most of the year, and envision a year-round training center hosting as many racing dates as the market will bear.

Were that it was so simple. The final say regarding Del Mar’s future does not rest with the management of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which has operated the racing since 1970, nor with the town of Del Mar, with its population of around 4,300.

The real boss is California’s 22nd District Agricultural Association, as embodied by the board of directors of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, where the racetrack has made its home since Der Bingle first crooned “Where the Surf Meets the Turf.” The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is nothing more or less than a high-class tenant forking over a huge amount of rent.

Tim Fennell is the energetic chief executive and general manager of the Del Mar Fairgrounds whose personal history includes his teen years in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where his most lasting memory traces back to the day he was at the track to witness Onion’s upset of Secretariat. To suggest that Fennell is not a die-hard racing fan has no merit.

His loyalty, however, is to the greater success of the fairgrounds. And in that sense, he has presided over an unprecedented expansion of events and revenue, of which horse racing is a vital part.

“I look at what we do as a three-legged stool,” Fennell said. “I look at the fair as one of the legs, the non-fair events as another leg, and then our horse racing – both live and satellite wagering – as a third leg. So, we take horse racing very seriously. The way we look at it, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club puts on the race meet on our behalf, and they do a great job.”

Fennell conceded that stabling and training will be the ongoing issue in Southern California, but he does not see how the fairgrounds can offer much relief beyond the 2014 addition of the 20-day fall race meet, which will host the Breeders’ Cup in 2017. In the past, racing was the primary moneymaker for the Fairgrounds. Now, Fennell estimates that each of the three legs will contribute about one-third of the approximately $110 million in gross fairgrounds revenue this year.

“The challenge we have here is doing over 300 events a year,” Fennell said. “Becoming a year-round training facility would definitely be a huge challenge.”

If anything, the non-racing part of the fairgrounds profile will be increasing. The Kaaboo Music Festival has signed a five-year deal for its September dates. Fennell envisions a glitzy concert center being built where the low-key satellite wagering facility now sits.

And the Del Mar Fair, which closed July 4 with an attendance of more than 1.6 million, is still king. The 2015 racing attendance, summer and fall, was a shade more than 700,000.

“That’s why we’re here, quite honestly – to put on the fair,” Fennell said. “But horse racing is a close second.”

Bill Keating More than 1 year ago
Jay meant that the horses that he named are at the top of their divisions: the cream of the cream. I have to agree that Songbird, the undefeated filly, is probably the most exciting horse in training right now.

But she also highlights the problem in California racing. Only once has she left Southern California to run, although that one race was the Breeders Cup in Kentucky. Her last four starts at Santa Anita have included a Grade 2 and a Grade 3 stakes. She is far beyond racing in this company.

This summer she will head East to cement her status as one of the great fillies. Like last year with American Pharoah, East Coast fans will be rooting for her as much as those on the other Coast.
David Oppedisano More than 1 year ago

I lived in SoCal for 20 years and in upstate New York for almost 40, so I know Del Mar and I know Saratoga.  Del Mar has the beaches and the weather.  But "the very best horses in the country...?"

Please.  Not even close.

Del Mar is a few nice horses surrounded by a stampede of $10,000 claimers, nothing more.

Rod More than 1 year ago
So Cal racing is going to be in a world of hurt once Los Alamitos is redeveloped. When you think of how large the original Hollywood Park tract of land was, and how it was sold off, piecemeal over time, you can see (in Google Maps) how the original Los Alamitos footprint has been similarly sold off in pieces. There's now virtually no way to reconstruct a track with a turf course, and if Allred doesn't find a buyer who sees any purchase of Los Al as a viable business in the future, well then yes, I think it's headed the way of Hollywood Park once Allred passes. The land is likely more valuable as something other than a racetrack.
Chas More than 1 year ago
And this is why racing in So. California and the state of California will continue to 'do a slow burn till it is running just 3 days a week'  and even smaller fields....
No question if Del Mar were to be able to stable year round the sport would have a chance to grow...but, as it is there is no chance for growth with two under size training facilities located in far away San Diego county...a quarter horse track that can not be expanded to include turf racing and will be turned into a shopping center once Allred passes on...
And in the end, the powers that be running the sport - Stronach and Harper - are either happy as can be with the way things are(Harper) or just have checked out and do not care (Stronach)....
Mark W. More than 1 year ago
Del Mar, being held hostage by it's landlord, the 22nd District Agricultural Association, will sooner than later be squeezed hard, threatening the life of our great sport.
Dustin OHara More than 1 year ago
Del mar the best summer track second to none Saratoga great but it's not close as we celebrate mar have the beach etc and great weather all the time as Saratoga might get rain n then some 
thegeoffer More than 1 year ago
I want a hit of whatever it is you're smoking.  BTW, isn't Songbird already at Saratoga?
Eric Osiecki More than 1 year ago
Delmar will always be in the shadow of The worlds greatest Race Track Saratoga Dustin . And yuuuup Saratoga does get rain but I would rather have rain than the raging wild fires you get  
Matt More than 1 year ago
I agree with you Dustin....I always choose to play Del Mar over Saratoga due to the consistently fast dry track surface. I hate all the sloppy, muddy track conditions at Saratoga and the multitude of scratches they cause on a regular basis.
Bill Keating More than 1 year ago
Changing track conditions can cause lucrative opportunities if a horseplayer is open to them. The best day I ever had at Saratoga was a day when the skies opened and it poured onto the track. Every race was won by a horse that got out in front and splashed home.
Gunner More than 1 year ago
When an official in any arena says that they take something "very seriously", it is best to hold on to your wallet and be prepared to lose something you love.
Dahorsecapper More than 1 year ago
looks like surfside  racing place will be closing soon based on this article. Wonder if they will replace it or no more simu facility. 
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
"Opening Day". No explanation needed...