07/15/2014 1:53PM

New meet, new course at Del Mar

Benoit & Associates
Del Mar opens its summer meet on Thursday. It also will run a fall meet in November.

A day later than usual, Del Mar launches its popular summer race meeting Thursday. But this year, the party does not stop Labor Day week.

Two months after the summer meeting closes Sept. 3, Del Mar will run a monthlong autumn meeting in November. The new meeting is part of a redistribution of racing dates following the closure of Hollywood Park last year.

“It’s a different year and a lot of uncertainty in all areas,” said track president Joe Harper. “We’ll learn some lessons and see how it works out.”

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While the calendar has expanded, some things at Del Mar remain the same. Opening day will attract a rowdy crowd as always, and people-watching will be as much of a sport as the action on the track.

Thursday’s crowd will be massive – Harper expects more than 40,000 for the 10th consecutive year – and enthusiastic, with race fans in flip-flops and shorts congregating on the track apron and the hipster crowd filling the grandstand and angling for coveted spots in the clubhouse. There is always a chance that the track’s all-time record for attendance of 47,339 from opening day in 2012 could be surpassed.

For Thursday, there are 10 races, highlighted by the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds on turf. The main race of the summer meeting is the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 24, which is expected to include Shared Belief, the champion 2-year-old male of 2013, and Game On Dude, the winner of the race last year.

The turf course is new, having been replaced and widened over the winter to accommodate larger fields. Del Mar will host the Breeders’ Cup for the first time in 2017, and a larger turf course was needed for that event.

Tom Robbins, the track’s vice president of racing, expects full fields for turf races. There has been no turf racing on the Southern California circuit since the end of the Santa Anita spring-summer meeting June 29. The two-week summer meeting at Los Alamitos that ended Sunday was limited to dirt racing.

Robbins said the new turf course has six rail settings at six-foot increments, ranging from the permanent position, or zero setting, to a temporary rail 30 feet out from the permanent position. The old turf course had three settings at seven-foot ranges, from zero to 14 feet.

Five-furlong turf sprints have become popular, but Robbins said he is uncertain how many will be offered. The races tend to cause more wear and tear on the course because the horses’ hooves hit the ground harder than in longer races run at slower paces.

“We’ll play it by ear,” Robbins said of the turf sprints.

Del Mar has usually opened on a Wednesday, but this year, opening day was pushed back a day after track officials said they wanted an additional day to prepare the facility following the closure of the San Diego County Fair, which was held on the property through July 6.

“It’s always a challenge from the end of the fair to the opening of our meeting,” Harper said. “That’s why we took the extra day. It’s been fairly smooth.”

An early influx of horses to the stable area, which opened last week, has encouraged Harper.

“Usually, they dribble in,” he said. “We had 1,000 horses here instantaneously.”

Almost 2,000 horses will be on the grounds for the meeting, which offers the highest purse levels on the circuit. Last year, fields averaged 8.79 runners per race, the highest since the 1995 season, which had 9.01 runners per race. The 1995 figure could be challenged, with large fields expected for races on the widened turf course.