07/19/2009 11:00PM

Looks a little less sunny this year


DEL MAR, Calif. - Del Mar opens on Wednesday for its 70th season of racing surrounded by grim economic indicators.

Gas prices in Southern California have crept back to more than $3 a gallon. Unemployment in the state has hit 11 percent. What was once described as disposable income, many times spent on a carefree day at the races, is now being diverted to such luxuries as rent, food, and health insurance.

If any track can withstand such ominous pressures, Del Mar might be the one. Track management is acting as if the dark clouds of the recession have already dropped most of their rain, at least when it comes to patronizing the Del Mar brand of horse racing entertainment.

"I really think we might do okay," said Del Mar's president, Joe Harper, who swallowed a 7-percent dip in total handle last season. "Opening day will take care of itself, but beyond that, we're seeing reasons to be hopeful."

Since pie in the sky is not on Del Mar's clubhouse menu, we'll have to take Harper on his word, at least until a trend develops. It is true that anticipation for Del Mar's opening, among both the principals and the fans, has grown ever greater in recent years as Hollywood Park's profile has withered.

And yet, Del Mar can not afford to display even the slightest trace of smugness. The hammer of the broader economy has only chipped at the edges of Del Mar's business so far. And if there is a real disaster waiting to happen, of immediate and lasting impact, it will further erode the level of investment in Thoroughbred ownership, already showing signs of significant retreat.

How's this for an indicator? For the first time in 21 years, something happened. For the first time since opening day of 1988, the traditional Oceanside Stakes will be run in just one lonely division.

Normally, the entry box overflows with the names of 3-year-old colts both eligible and inclined to run a mile on firm turf in late July. The pool from which this division drinks is traditionally vast. There are the failed classicists, who found out at some point last winter or spring that the Kentucky Derby was not part of their destiny. There are the injured

2-year-olds of the previous fall, finally back in form, and the awkward youth, who required more time and patience than their peers. Top those off with any number of Euro imports, and it is no surprise that as recently as 2007 there were three divisions of the Oceanside at $75,000 a division.

Now there is one. And that can't be good, unless owners and trainers are holding out and awaiting tougher spots for the division in the La Jolla Handicap and the Del Mar Derby. This is not likely.

Still, you go to battle on opening day with the Oceanside you've got, and the 2009 version offers a full and entertaining field. Since the rest of the California season for top 3-year-olds takes place on the grass, a few of them might be heard from down the line for races like the Oak Tree Derby and Hollywood Derby.

Richard Mandella, who is getting close to 50 Del Mar stakes wins, will try to win another Oceanside with Meteore, a son of Pulpit. Bred and owned by the Wertheimer brothers (Kotashaan and Halfbridled were theirs), Meteore did not win until his sixth start, then came right back to take an allowance race at Hollywood Park as if he meant to do that all along. Mandella maintains his record was deceiving.

"Those two races before he broke his maiden were pretty good races," Mandella said Monday morning at his Del Mar barn, which is actually a massive converted auditorium with pre-fab stalls and plenty of headroom. There is also a fine view of the hideous whale murals that dominate the side of another hangar-like backstretch structure.

"Things just didn't work out," Mandella noted. "He was getting blocked out, or do something stupid. He was kind of working his way toward getting smarter. But his two wins he won under wraps, pretty easy."

Mandella described Meteore as a strong-bodied colt who neglected to grow much since he was a yearling. Neither is he the most correct individual up front, which means it's probably a good thing he didn't get that big in the first place.

"He's small, but he's got big action, which is fine," Mandella said. "But if they're small and they've got small action, guess what?"

Large or small, there are no monsters roaming the Mandella shed row these days, but the bar is pretty high. This is the guy who beat Cigar with Dare and Go 13 years ago, when Cigar hadn't lost for nearly two years. As recently as 2003, Mandella won the Futurity, the Debutante, and the Oaks, then came right back in 2004 to win the Pacific Classic with Pleasantly Perfect. The point being, count him out at your own risk. Dixie Chatter won a division of the 2008 Oceanside for Mandella and went on to be a useful stakes performer this season. Meteore could do worse than following those footsteps.

"Maybe he is growing," Mandella said after escorting a visitor to Meteore's deeply bedded stall. "Or maybe we've just got the stall built up a little more for him. No, he does look bigger. They all do when they win."