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.”