09/05/2013 3:20PM

Jay Hovdey: Raise a Delmargarita to a great meeting

Benoit & Associates
Game On Dude provided one of the Del Mar meet highlights with a powerful performance in the Pacific Classic.

If the question was asked once this summer it was asked a hundred times:

“Have you been to Saratoga?”

Coming in second was, “When did you stop working out?” But that’s a whole different bag of chips.
The Saratoga question usually hit while loitering somewhere at Del Mar – in the sun-baked walking ring, in the shade of the clubhouse box seats, hanging on the rail in the grandstand tunnel as a field made its way to the track.

The answer was always, “Nope, stayed here,” and the rejoinder invariably, “Too bad,” which confirmed the message implicit in the question itself, that there is something terribly wrong with a racing fan if he or she does not do everything in his or her power to make the pilgrimage to Saratoga Springs in the summertime in order to witness Thoroughbred racing as it was now and forever meant to be.

You’ll get no argument from this angle. Even we native Californians, raised to be skeptical of anything happening someplace where the clocks run three hours fast, understand that the rich history of horse racing in America owes a disproportionate share of its depth and breadth to what has taken place at Saratoga.

Del Mar, by contrast, has perfected the Delmargarita.

And yet there is something to be said for the isolated delights of Del Mar, a one-off experience that attempts nothing more than to be true to its own self-absorbed mission. Track chief Joe Harper has described it best in pointing to a plan hatched two decades ago that sought to lure customers through sensory benefits peripheral to the actual presentation of the sport itself.

“We want to give people a reason to try horse racing,” Harper said.

Interestingly, one of those reasons is not horse racing. Horses, as a flesh-and-blood concept, hold no fascination for Del Mar’s target audience (much like the culture at large). And the racing of horses, as anachronistic as the rotary dial, is too quaint to even consider as a marketing strategy. Ask a dozen Saratoga fans to pick Allen Jerkens out of a crowd and they’d be insulted you asked. Ask a dozen Del Mar fans to point out Ron McAnally or Richard Mandella and they’d demand to know if Weezer is coming back next year.

Still, if I’d gone East for the aromatic waters of Saratoga Springs this summer I would have missed not only Weezer (actually, I did), but also:

◗ Game On Dude making mincemeat of the Pacific Classic in a one-sided win that looks better with every viewing, and not just because his Beyer Figure keeps going up and up and up …

◗ The long-awaited Californization of Julien Leparoux, whose 25 winners at the meet included three of the majors – the John C. Mabee with Tiz Flirtatious, the Del Mar Oaks with Discreet Marq, and the closing-day Del Mar Futurity with Tamarando …

◗ The rejuvenation of Victor Espinoza, Del Mar riding champ in 2000, 2005, and 2006, who at 41 closed the meet with a flurry to tie Edwin Maldonado for third in the standings, one back of Martin Garcia, behind the runaway Rafael Bejarano …

◗ The intrigue of Del Mar-gate on Saturday, Aug. 24, when the final race of the program was canceled because one of the horses reared and then rammed his doors open, tripping open all but one of the other starting stalls. Of the 11 other horses in the gate all but two were restrained by their assistant starters, thus averting widespread disaster.

“That one stall not opening saved me,” said official starter Gary Brinson, who was immediately accused of hitting the button prematurely. “We went over the gate top to bottom the next day – wiring, batteries, everything. Pounded on the gate trying to make them do it again, but we never figured why it happened.”

At least it didn’t happen again.

It did not go without notice that Del Mar’s Aug. 24 program began with a military honor guard inadvertently raising the colors upside down, otherwise known as the international symbol of distress. The flag was quickly righted.

As far as that goes, Saratoga’s got the revered Saratoga battlefield, where in 1777 England’s General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne became the first of many favorites to crash and burn at the spa. Del Mar has a similar infatuation with all things military, and it is well justified, surrounded as it is by the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton and Miramar Air Station and the Navy at North Island in San Diego.

There are any number of official track events staged throughout the meet with military themes and participation, but none matches the very unofficial private party held on Del Mar’s closing day treating upward of 50 wounded veterans and their guests to an all-day escape into horse racing’s colorful world.

They were spilling out of the hospitality suite onto the sunset terrace on the top floor of the Del Mar grandstand late Wednesday afternoon, still intent on a handicapping competition pitting teams led by various hosts from the racing and business community. At this point the race for the last-place consolation prize was almost as heated as the scrap for first.

“We started this eight years ago,” said horse owner Bob Bone. “We have connections at the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton and the Balboa Medical Center. About six weeks out we tell them the day, and we have no trouble filling the room.”

Bone stood in the middle of a whirl of activity. Wheelchairs had the right of way. One vet walked to the buffet on a pair of metal prosthetics. There was not a uniform in sight. Bone spearheads the gathering along with fellow horse owners Scott Guenther, Jim Robinson, and Ron “Yogi” Brewer.

“These guys get invited to an awful lot of stuff,” Bone said of the vets. “And that’s heart-warming. Over the years, though, we keep hearing that this is their favorite event.

“My uncle was killed in Korea, and my dad always teared up when he talked about him. Maybe that’s why I’ve got a soft spot for these guys. I don’t know. I do [know] after spending time with them I’ve got no problems. Inconveniences, maybe, but no problems.

“My fondest wish is that someday there will be no reason anymore to have a get-together like this,” Bone added. “But as long as there is, we’ll be here next year.”