10/30/2017 1:46PM

Hovdey: Harper invites world to step right up


Joe Harper had no chance. On his mother’s side, he was awash with the cinematic pomp and circumstance of his grandfather, Cecil B. DeMille. On his father’s side, there lurked the legacy of Harper’s great-grandfather John Chamberlain, a 19th century gambler and tireless promoter who was in business with heavyweights like Boss Tweed and John Morrissey.

DeMille directed “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and Chamberlain built the original Monmouth Park, pretty much the definition of tough acts to follow. But Harper hung in there, and after 40 years in the executive suite of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, he’s finally got something that compares – the Breeders’ Cup.

With the exception of Oaklawn’s Charles Cella, no one in the modern era has run a track longer than Harper, whose tenure at Del Mar has had more loops and swirls than some of the rides on the midway of the county fair that precedes the summer meet each year.

The Harper era has seen Del Mar’s business go from an also-ran on the national charts to the ranks of the most successful tracks in North America, in large part by hitching a ride to the phenomenal growth of San Diego County as a sports and recreation mecca. Shamelessly flogging its natural environment of sand, sun and sea, Harper and his management team have positioned Del Mar on the local bucket list alongside such iconic attractions as the San Diego Zoo, Coronado Island, Balboa Park, and the Gaslamp District of a revitalized downtown.

As a result, Harper was able to sell the Breeders’ Cup selection committee on more than just Del Mar’s evocative, mission-style architecture, its fan-friendly amphitheater paddock, and its recently widened turf course. Since it was no use pretending that the event was a blue-collar racing celebration at general admission prices, Harper trotted out a list of high-end hotels, four-star restaurants, and upscale leisure distractions, at the center of which happened to sit Del Mar.

“They didn’t know what Del Mar was,” Harper said. “So my pitch became the landscape, not just the venue. When I told them San Diego was the sixth largest city in the country, nobody knew that.”

For years, however, the idea of a Del Mar Breeders’ Cup was scoffed at not only by the Eastern establishment but also by the people running Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, just up the road in L.A. They were the adults, was the attitude, and Del Mar was the summer fling no one takes seriously except the hopelessly romantic.

“We started getting positive feedback about 10 years ago, especially from owners and trainers, when it was clear Hollywood was in trouble,” Harper said. “The biggest drawback was parking and crowd access. People who knew about the traffic here on big days laughed at the idea of a Breeders’ Cup. But then Lone Star came along, and they did okay. And if the fair could put a hundred thousand people in here in a day with offsite parking, why would it be a problem for us?

“Even when we got it, I know there was some concern on the part of people at Breeders’ Cup,” Harper added. “But I think when the event went so well at Keeneland, they were relieved. They solved a lot of the same challenges, in terms of traffic and facility, that we’re looking at here.”

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As the public face of not-for-profit Del Mar, Harper has managed to maintain a light-hearted, wise-cracking act in a variety of public forums while spreading the gospel of Del Mar’s “have a good time, all the time” philosophy.

Even so, Harper can enumerate the many hurdles that have come with the operation of a major sporting venue, plus horses, beyond the building of a new, $80 million grandstand in the early 1990’s and shuffling through a series of main tracks and turf courses over the past decade.

Since Harper arrived at Del Mar in late 1977, after serving as executive secretary of the Oak Tree Racing Association, there have been immigration raids, a trainers’ boycott, environmental challenges, backstretch floods, tote malfunctions, plumbing disasters, animal-rights protesters, and haunted elevators. Once, the Brink’s truck with the day’s cash reserves failed to show.

Spread over 40 years, however, such a collection of hiccups is hardly a surprise. Harper has learned to roll with punches and take the good times with the rest.

Harper’s father, Joseph W. Harper Sr., was a studio executive. His mother, Cecilia DeMille Harper, was a successful owner and breeder who won the 1960 Del Mar Futurity with Short Jacket, a son of Bolero.

Harper grew up to a great extent in the Los Angeles home of his legendary grandfather. Cecil B. DeMille was an actor turned producer/director who co-founded Paramount Studio and made his first film, “The Squaw Man,” in 1914. Dinners at the DeMille table required the family members to have something smart to say and a plan for the day to come.

“It was nothing for me to walk in the house and see Gary Cooper or Charlton Heston sitting on a couch reading a script,” Harper said.

Four decades after “The Squaw Man,” DeMille premiered his most famous movie, “The Ten Commandments,” in which he set loose a plague of frogs and parted the Red Sea. His grandson’s challenge is no less daunting, but after 40 years together, Joe Harper and Del Mar are ready for their Breeders’ Cup close-up.