08/20/2003 11:00PM

Morning rush hour needs relief


DEL MAR, Calif. - On the Friday morning before the Saturday running of the 1996 Pacific Classic, Del Mar's management deemed it prudent to clear the track of all horses so that Cigar could gallop in safe and solitary splendor.

After all, the reigning Horse of the Year was going for a record 17th straight win, and he was sure to draw a record crowd to Del Mar, which he did. Cigar's people did not ask for the accommodation. It was volunteered. On the following morning, after a justifiable protest, Cigar was joined during his exclusive gallop by fellow Classic starters.

Such preferential treatment is unusual. But odd as it may have appeared, it was probably a good idea. For years Del Mar has been known far and wide as the most dangerous of all possible tracks upon which to train, though not because of the surface, nor the climate, nor the quality of the animals who populate the stables.

It is because of the traffic. There are too many horses doing too many things on a racetrack that does not offer enough room to maneuver. Del Mar does not even have a proper training track to give horsemen an alternative arena for serious exercise. There is only a small secondary oval tucked away at the northwest corner of the track property, and its surface is far from optimum.

"You have three choices," said trainer Bob Hess. "You can go to the little training track, and deal with the rocks. You can take your horse to the chute, which is too narrow. Or you can go to the main track and get run over."

Added trainer Ben Cecil, "There is absolutely no margin for error. It can get pretty hairy sometimes."

Cecil and Hess had horses at the center of yet another Del Mar main-track mess Thursday morning, right after the 9 o'clock renovation, at the point of the clubhouse turn where the seven-furlong chute joins the backstretch.

At such a time, in just that place, the balance of walkers, backtrackers, joggers, gallopers and workers is very delicate. A lot is happening in a highly claustrophobic space. Now add to this recipe the odd sight of a television cameraman, stationed on the outside rail. Mix thoroughly and stand back.

The cameraman was taping the Ron McAnally-trained Candy Ride as he came around the turn in completion of his final breeze for Sunday's Pacific Classic. The Hess maiden Fort Point, on the other hand, was merely backtracking, drawing very little attention, while the turf horse Reef Diver, trained by Cecil, was in the midst of a routine gallop.

According to exercise rider Dave Rodriguez, Fort Point spooked at the sight of the television camera. The horse panicked and whirled into the galloping Reef Diver, who promptly dislodged Cecil's assistant, John Applegarth. Applegarth hit the deck directly in front of the rapidly approaching Candy Ride, who was ridden by Julie Krone.

Krone yelled, "Don't get up!" in the direction of Applegarth, who took her advice and waited until Candy Ride passed safely to the outside. There were many other horses in the vicinity, including Medaglia d'Oro and Milwaukee Brew, the Bobby Frankel runners who will meet Candy Ride in the Classic. Luckily, they both passed unharmed.

"There was large bush blocking my view from the grandstand," Cecil said. "I had two horses on the track, and suddenly I didn't know where one of them had gone. Then the sirens went on, and I knew I was in trouble."

After a few minutes the dust cleared, the red lights stopped flashing, and the sound of the sirens faded away. Everybody got up . . . this time. But this time could have just as easily been a case of carnage and tragedy, not to mention the complete gutting of Sunday's Pacific Classic, the most important race of the meet. Medaglia d'Oro, Milwaukee Brew and Candy Ride make up three-fifths of the field.

Del Mar management has been trying hard for the past few years to create a training track somewhere in the vicinity. There is not a lot from which to chose, and time has just about run out. Every summer, more and more trainers are steering clear of the Del Mar backstretch because of training conditions on the main track. Some bail out early - as noted in a story in Friday's Daily Racing Form - while others simply avoid the meet, or send token representation.

The San Diego County Coastal Commission is regularly blamed for standing in the way of a training track development. Certainly, the commission has put Del Mar management through the hoops for such simple renovations as a tunnel to the infield and a grandstand apron restaurant.

Then what is the answer? Better lobbying efforts? More ecologically sound planning? Perhaps a more ambitious, and expensive, set of training track plans? So far, they have all been tried in varying degrees. Maybe it's time to saddle up a couple of coastal commissioners and plant them at the three-eighths pole after the second break. Fear can be an amazing motivator.

In the end, the trainers and owners who care for their animals will vote with their feet, and the robust business enjoyed by Del Mar will be the victim. Better the bottom line suffer, though, than the horses.