07/20/2009 11:00PM

Summertime has arrived

Mark Johnson
Del Mar's turf course will see only one race on opening day, when 40,000 fans are expected for the Oceanside and its supporting card.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The challenges that face California racing will not be settled over the next seven weeks.

A weak economy has led to fewer racing dates, unresolved synthetic-surface issues continue, and the future is vague for two Los Angeles-area tracks. Hollywood Park eventually will close for property development, and Santa Anita will be sold in bankruptcy proceedings.

Del Mar, meanwhile, begins its seven-week summer race meet Wednesday, and though the seaside racetrack is hardly exempt from year-round worries, they tend to fade at about the halfway point of a 100-mile drive south from Los Angeles on Interstate 5.

"There's something about passing San Clemente, like a weight is lifted," trainer Richard Mandella said. "It's such a refreshing change, and so relaxing to come down here and enjoy it."

Beyond the casual atmosphere and picturesque locale of Del Mar, Mandella has extra reason for optimism on opening day. His improving colt Meteore, with last summer's leading jockey, Rafael Bejarano, will be tough to beat in the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds at one mile on grass, the only turf race Wednesday.

A crowd of 40,000 fans is expected for one of the social highlights of summer in the San Diego area. What many attendees might not realize is the 2009 Del Mar season is replete with change.

The racing week has been shortened from six days to five. Mondays have been dropped, and racing will be Wednesday through Sunday, except for Labor Day, Sept. 7. Del Mar's racing secretary, Tom Robbins, hopes the reduction will increase quality.

Despite a six-day reduction to 37 days from 43 last year, Del Mar will trim only 28 races from its overall schedule. The track will schedule 343 races instead of the usual 371. Wednesday and Fridays will have nine races instead of eight, and Sundays will have 10 races instead of nine. Thursdays (eight) and Saturdays (10) remain the same.

Plans are subject to change depending on the horse inventory, and the quality of the opening-day card suggests possible revision. For the first time in more than 20 years, the Oceanside Stakes was not split into two divisions, while two other turf races did not fill.

"I thought we'd be running four turf races opening day, and we're running one," Robbins said.

Instead, nine of the 10 opening-day races are on Polytrack. In order to fill 10 races, Del Mar split a $10,000 claimer into two divisions, and reluctantly used a $25,000 maiden claimer that was a substitute race in the condition book.

One custom kept intact is the Del Mar tradition that the first race of summer be a route race that starts directly in front of the grandstand. Jeff Mullins-trained Yodelen Dan and Mike Mitchell-trained Dadsalittleunusual are the favorites in the $12,500 claimer at one mile.

Mitchell, with 399 Del Mar wins, is closing in on all-time leader Ron McAnally, who has 432. Although he does not expect to catch McAnally this summer, Mitchell anticipates a huge meet.

"I've never had this many horses," he said, referring to a 70-horse string split between Santa Anita and Del Mar.

Based on volume and his usual aggressive placement, Mitchell predicted, "I should a pretty good meet." And he wondered the same thing as handicappers: "How is the track going to play?"

Good question. Polytrack played extremely slow in 2007 when no water was used, yet main-track favorites won 32 percent, slightly below the historical norm. The second year of Polytrack in 2008, the main track was watered and the win rate for favorites dipped to 30 percent, lowest in at least 20 years at Del Mar.

While the declining win rate of main-track favorites may be a statistical anomaly, the unfortunate consequence of increased water last summer was a corresponding increase in injuries. Early returns for 2009 are promising despite a fatal breakdown Sunday morning.

A year ago, trainer Carla Gaines was hit hard with injury. This year, she is initially pleased with the surface.

"I worked 14 horses [Saturday], and was holding my breath," she said. "Every one of them was fine." The exception was sore shins on a problematic 2-year-old. "This track has life, it has bounce," Gaines said.

Considering the surface has not been used for training or racing in 10 months, it should be in good shape. Mandella, a proponent of synthetics, described the difference between the first year of Polytrack (no water) and the second year (too much water).

"My guess is we had two extremes," Mandella said. "The first year it was a little under-managed, and the second year over-managed. I'm not trying to criticize - I'm saying that constructively. The learning curve continues."

Del Mar also has experimented with a rejiggered stakes schedule, back-loading the meet with 15 of its 42 stakes run the final seven days of the meet.

The undefeated Zenyatta is expected to run Aug. 9 in the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch Stakes. A change in conditions (weight-for-age) means Zenyatta will not have to give weight to her contemporaries. The circuit's top sprinter, Zensational, will run Sept. 6 in the Grade 1 Pat O'Brien, and Hollywood Gold Cup winner Rail Trip will try to stretch his speed over a surface less conducive to his front-running style when he runs Sept. 6 in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic.

Even though Meteore enters the Oceanside the most likely winner, bettors looking for a speed horse on turf will find a suitable candidate in Backbackbackgone.

"He is the speed of the race, and we will be in front," trainer Peter Miller said.

Correction: A previous version of this article contained an incorrect date for the Clement Hirsch Stakes. The race is Aug. 9, not Aug. 1.