08/08/2016 11:00AM

Illness, fewer horses contributing to drop in field size

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DEL MAR, Calif. – The average field size at the Del Mar summer meeting has failed to keep pace with last year’s, although officials think field sizes could grow during the last half of the meet.

Through Sunday, the 18th day of the 39-day season, fields have averaged 8.1 runners per race compared with 8.79 runners during a similar span last year. The entire 2015 summer meeting also averaged 8.79 runners, which equaled the field size for the 2013 season and is the highest in this century at Del Mar.

Officials said over the weekend that an average of 8.4 runners per race is possible before the meeting ends Sept. 5. Field size is among the main drivers of handle. Track officials said in early August that overall handle was down more than 11 percent from a similar period in 2015.

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Officials cite two factors for the decline in average field size – fewer horses in Southern California this year and an illness that has been running through some stables in the last month.

“We’ve heard anecdotally from trainers that sickness is knocking them out,” said Tom Robbins, the track’s executive vice president of racing.

The decline has been acutely felt in 2-year-old races. For the entire 2015 summer meeting, 2-year-old races averaged 8.6 runners per race. Through Sunday, 2-year-old races at this meet had averaged 7.75 runners.

Trainer Jim Cassidy, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said his stable was hit hard by illness at Santa Anita in late June.

“I thought we had the sickness behind us, and we got two with temperatures this morning,” he said last weekend. “It’s not horrible, but you have to back off.”

Santa Anita averaged 8.1 runners per race at its winter-spring meeting, down from 8.36 at the corresponding meeting in 2014-15. Santa Anita’s spring-summer meeting averaged 7.26 runners per race and was hurt by the absence of turf racing in the final three weeks to renovate the course.

David Jerkens, Del Mar’s director of racing, said there are approximately 3,100 horses on the Del Mar backstretch, at Los Alamitos, and at the training centers at nearby Galway Downs and San Luis Rey Downs, compared with about 3,300 at this time last year.

Jerkens said Santa Anita’s program of running only dirt races for the final three weeks of its spring-summer meeting, which ended July 10, left fewer horses ready to run in the main-track races at the start of the Del Mar meeting.

“I think our dirt inventory was backed up a bit by the conclusion of Santa Anita,” he said. “We felt the impact of that a bit.”

Jerkens expects more runners in the coming weeks. For the eight-race cards this Wednesday through Friday, there were 62, 70, and 67 horses entered.

Jerkens said that despite the decline in field size, Del Mar remains better off than most tracks.

“We still have the highest field size in California,” he said. “It’s among the highest in the country.”

– additional reporting by Brad Free