07/19/2013 2:32PM

Jay Hovdey: At Del Mar it's turf, surf, and Joe Harper


Massaging civic leaders is always part of the racetrack management job, and so it was that Joe Harper, early in his tenure at Del Mar, found himself prepping for an appearance at a San Diego Chamber of Commerce meeting. He needed material.

“I knew they’d ask me who I liked that afternoon, but I didn’t have a clue,” Harper said. “So I asked my wife, Barbara, who’d been up until midnight handicapping, to give me her picks.”

Like any handicapper worth his or her personal charts and figures, Mrs. Harper said, “No way, bub,” or words to that effect. Harper begged, Barbara relented, and her selections were shared with the local burghers.

“They all won,” Harper said. “Every one of her top picks came in. I remember this because the county sheriff and chief of police were in the audience. When they called me later they said, ‘Before we decide whether or not we should arrest you, who do you like today?’ ”

The tale may be apocryphal, but it does serve as part of the back-drop. Harper, the grandson of film mogul Cecil B. DeMille and son of a publishing executive, has spent a lifetime dealing with the idea that entertainment can be both entertaining and profitable, but if it’s not profitable it probably won’t be entertaining for long.

In 1977, the year before Joe Harper took the job at Del Mar as executive vice president and general manager, the 43-day summer meet drew a daily average of 16,532 customers.

The numbers were fine, as far as Del Mar business was concerned, but they were dwarfed by Hollywood Park’s 1977 average gate of 28,222 and Santa Anita’s 27,295. Even the 24-day Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita in the fall, averaging 22,397, easily topped the Del Mar crowds.

Essentially, over the past 35 years, Del Mar has held its own as an entertainment destination while the rest of California’s ontrack experience has crumbled. In 2012, Del Mar’s crowd averaged 17,623. The Santa Anita average attendance was reported at 9,930, while the Santa Anita fall meet, which has replaced Oak Tree, dipped below 7,000. Hollywood Park stopped disclosing totals, although on most days taking roll would have done the trick.

The contributing factors are many – from local demographics to the internal economics of the sport – but continuity of ownership and stability of management never hurts.

Over the past 35 years, Hollywood Park was owned by four different entities. Same for Santa Anita, if you count two different incarnations under Frank Stronach. By contrast, the Del Mar dates have been operated by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, as tenants of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, since 1970 in a series of 20-year leases with the State of California, which owns the property.

Over three-plus decades, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita have had a virtual parade of presidents and chief executives. Harper, on the other hand, is the widely acknowledged one and only face of Del Mar anyone can truly recall, both in the racing business and the broader community, although he has made an art form of deferring to such Del Mar icons as Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien, John Mabee, and Robert Strauss.

In fact, among the nation’s top racetrack executives, the only person with a term of service comparable to Harper’s at Del Mar is Charles Cella, who took over as Oaklawn Park president in 1968 upon the death of his father, John G. Cella.

So it’s a fair question: Why has he lasted so long? Harper leaned forward to display something on his smartphone.

“Barry Irwin wrote this about me years ago,” Harper said, referring to the Team Valor syndicate chief who once toiled as a turf writer. “I keep it handy to keep me humble.”

He recited from the screen:

“ ‘Joe Harper is a not-so-bright trust fund baby whose arrogance reflects poorly on track management.’

“I’ll have to admit he got three things right,” Harper offered. “Arrogant, not so bright, and trust fund baby. But that was pretty much my r é sum é . Lucky for me, it turned out to be just what Del Mar wanted.”

Of course, it can be argued – and often is – that it’s hardly breaking a sweat to run a Thoroughbred meeting for seven weeks during the summer in the middle of a prime resort area. Harper never disputes the natural blessings bestowed upon Del Mar.

“We’re in a great market,” Harper said. “And it’s not just the sunshine and the beach. The size of San Diego gives you all kinds of exposure. It’s a small-enough market to be noticed as a real major event, and a big enough market to take advantage of that.”

With Hollywood Park going out of business, the California racing industry will be turning more and more to Del Mar to assume a greater role, both as a physical resource and as a counterweight to the influence of Santa Anita Park, which will be assuming the bulk of the racing dates. One of those natural roles would seem to be as a major off-season training center.

“It’s certainly being discussed,” Harper said. “If you had a magic wand, I think the industry would like to see Del Mar as a year-round training center. Is it a practical possibility? For 12 months, very difficult. Obviously, there are a lot of things that go on at the fairgrounds people don’t realize, not the least of which is the Del Mar Fair. A lot of money is made here when we’re not running.”

For now, Harper will be happy if Del Mar can successfully reintroduce late-season racing to the region, commencing in November 2014. Fortunately, there are not too many people around in positions of influence who remember those 20 golden afternoons in October 1967, when many of the best horses, jockeys, and trainers in California competed in front of a Del Mar grandstand that was nearly deserted. The average attendance was 4,173, compared to 10,028 at the traditional summer meet, and to Hollywood’s 1967 average of more than 33,000, best in the nation.

Harper was working in the press box at the 1967 meet, shooting film for use by the local TV sports reporters like Jim Healy, the Jim Rome of his day.

“Jim calls one day and says, ‘Shoot the empty stands for me, would you?’ ” Harper said. “I told him I really didn’t think it would be in my best interests.”

There was no 1968 Del Mar fall meet. In 1969, the dates were picked up by the Oak Tree Racing Association and run at Santa Anita.

“I do remember that 1967 meet, but life’s changed a lot since then and markets have changed,” Harper said. “As long as we stay true to our image, I think we’ll be fine.”