07/11/2013 3:53PM

Jay Hovdey: At Del Mar, racing isn't the only game in town

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Shigeki Kikkawa
The Del Mar turf course, known for its tight turns, will be widened from 65 feet to 80 feet in time for the 2014 meeting.

Saratoga, which opens July 19, spends a fairly peaceful off-season, befitting its status as the dowager queen of American race courses. Horses train there from April through October. The weathered, beloved grandstand must be diligently maintained. Off-season visitors passing by can look in their guidebooks and point, “That’s Saratoga. They race Thoroughbreds there,” without fear of contradiction.

Then there is Del Mar, which opens July 17, but only after the Crossroads of the West Gun Show clears out of the Pat O’Brien Hall-Sponsored by Sleep Train Mattress Centers (over 100 locations in California) to make room for racetrack valet parking. The gun show – which features signs warning that gun sales in the parking lot are strictly prohibited – does not really get in the way, since there still will be plenty to do elsewhere on the property to get ready for the 37 days of Wednesday-through-Sunday racing.

That’s because the 24-day Del Mar Fair ended July 4, with attendance of 1.425 million, and there is no point in even thinking about Del Mar as a major-league racing facility until the carnies pack up the midway and hit the road, the acres of exhibits are crated and hauled, and the walkways are pressure-washed to remove the grease drippings from the world-class county fair cuisine.

Del Mar operations vice president Tim Read runs a three-ring circus of movers, cleaners, painters, plumbers, electricians, and all-around trouble-shooters, and with just six days left of the dozen prep days available, there was precious little time for Read to linger at his desk in Caballo Hall. A writer stopping by for a visit had better be ready to walk and talk.

“The carnies clear out pretty quick since they go right from here to the Orange County Fair,” Read said. “It’s packing up all the arts and crafts that takes longer. Those display areas occupy the first and second floors of most of the grandstand. One of our biggest challenges is the clean-up, because you can’t start that until you’ve got the fair elements removed, your concession facilities in place, and all the landscaping installed.”

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has leased the facility from California’s 22nd Agricultural District since 1970. The current lease runs until 2030. This provides a level of stability not enjoyed by privately owned tracks, but it also requires the racing operation to accept the landlord-renter relationship as a fact of ongoing life.

“The fairgrounds hosts so many more events now than it did years ago that we aren’t able to do as many things in the off-season as we might want to,” Read noted. “There was a time when there was the fair, the race meeting, and that was pretty much it.”

Read is the son of the late Eddie Read, the promotional dynamo who ran the Del Mar publicity department until his death in 1973. The track’s signature grass race for older horses is named for Eddie Read and will have its 40th running on July 20, the first Saturday of the meet.

If all goes according to plan, the Read – along with such significant races as the John C. Mabee, the Del Mar Oaks, the Del Mar Derby, and the Del Mar Mile – will be run on a newly widened and sodded turf course in 2014. As he walked across the synthetic main track, Read outlined the schedule.

“We’re going to start immediately after this meet,” he said. “Barring adverse weather conditions, we’ll probably be ready to put grass on it by the end of December or January. The grass has been growing in the Coachella Valley, and by the time we’re ready to put it down here it will be over a year and a half old.”

The oval portion of the course will go from 65 feet to 80 feet wide, expanded inwardly, which means that the radius of the already tight turns will be reduced.

“We’re very aware of that and will do what we can to soften the turns,” Read noted. “As it stands, the radius of the turns will be only a little bit tighter than Santa Anita’s. And the turns will be banked to help.”

Del Mar needs a wider turf course if it is going to be a serious contender as a Breeders’ Cup site in the not-so-distant future. A widening also helps with wear and tear, providing a variety of rail positions without drastically narrowing the course.

And about that rail. Fans won’t perceive much of a change, but up close the inner barrier on the grass course is a revelation. Gone are the eight foot sections sleeved into gooseneck supports fitted into holes in the course. The rail is now comprised of 40-foot, UV-rated segments of highest-quality PVC supported by generously spaced breakaway goosenecks fitted to galvinized base plates secured to the ground with 18-inch spikes.

The Mawsafe Running Rail is manufactured by the Australian company Global Barrier Systems and was named for its inventor, Dan Mawby. Read noted that while Del Mar is the first North American track to install a Mawsafe rail, it hardly qualifies as a guinea pig.

“They’ve got over a hundred installations in Asia and Australia,” Read noted. “The idea is that when a horse comes up against the rail it rides up slightly to prevent him from wanting to jump.”

The tour concluded with a quick look at the infield, which is in heavy use by the fair. Landscaping in the Del Mar infield is minimalist at best and most of the rest is concessions. By now, most of the grass areas have surrendered to wood chips. Read paused at a rare green patch of public turf and looked down at a deeply rutted oval, roughly the width and circumference of a backstretch walking ring. It had been flooded in what appeared to be a futile attempt at recovery.

“Know what that’s from?” Read asked.

“Um, a mini-train ride for the kids?” was the guess.

“Nope,” Read replied. “Elephants.”