08/10/2006 11:00PM

Where it's rush hour all the time


DEL MAR, Calif. - The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club website goes so far as to list the e-mail addresses of its top executives and department heads, which at least gives them something to do between Friday night rock concerts.

Such a policy of welcome customer feedback has its dark side, of course, especially during something like the siege of breakdowns and equine fatalities that occurred during the opening three weeks of the meet.

"I'm trying to answer an e-mail right now that called me a serial killer," said Joe Harper, Del Mar's president and general manager. "That was a little harsh, I thought."

Definitely harsh, particularly directed toward Harper, a second generation California horseman who, some 30 years ago, fought a wildfire practically by hand while trying to save the horses of his family's Middle Ranch north of Los Angeles.

Still, as the point man for an enterprise that takes inherent risks with the welfare of animals, Harper accepts the fact that he must answer to the public when worst-case scenarios come true. Among the many media interviews he has given in the past few weeks sprouted one kernel of a Harper quote that went straight to the heart of the matter.

"I said that the economics of the game do not always protect the health of the animal," Harper said Thursday morning. "No one asked me to expand on that."

Never mind. Few reporters are trained these days in the fine art of the follow-up. Anyway, the quote can stand alone as a benchmark sound bite that should be wood-burned onto the forehead of everyone involved in the modern racing food chain.

The economics of the game do not always protect the health of the animal.

Del Mar's summer of 2006 will go down in local history as a glaring example. A perfect storm of economic and logistical conditions conspired to create an intolerably crowded backstretch, spilling over each morning onto a main track that more closely resembles a scene from the Extreme Games.

The closure of Hollywood Park to install a synthetic surface, coupled with the earlier temporary closure of the Santa Anita main track for extensive renovation has driven the Del Mar horse population through the roof - or to about 2,500, whichever is higher.

As a result, the main track material has become a constant struggle to maintain. Heavy traffic after renovation breaks breeds hyper animals and freak accidents. Backstretch roads are clogged with traffic of all sorts.

"I can tell you one thing," Harper said. "There's not going to be this many horses down here ever again, no matter what happens in L.A. It just doesn't work. We over-accommodated, bending over backwards to find people places here."

If only, as many horsemen point out, Del Mar had a training track to take some of the pressure off the overcrowded main track. Nothing fancy, like Saratoga's Oklahoma track, a one-mile oasis where trainers are chauffered to and from their sets in elegant Cushman carts, and white-gloved attendants serve bloody Marys and morning snacks. But just a nice, honest oval would do, where a horse could get fit without running a daily gauntlet.

Ah, but Del Mar does have a training track, and it's a cute little thing, almost half a mile around with a soft, sandy surface, nearly rock free, rimmed by wild-growing Mexican fan palms and tucked into the far northwestern corner of the property, just outside the Solana stable gate.

Real trainers train there, too - Bruce Headley, Neil Drysdale, Ben Cecil, Mike Machowsky, Tom Blincoe. Jim Cassidy was asked what kind of horse he brought to the little track, characterized by more turns than straightaway. In reply, he nodded in the direction of a bay mare he'd just turned loose.

"That's Moscow Burning," he said. Enough said.

In fact, the only downside to Del Mar's petite piste is its size, as long as they spray for mosquitos wherever water tends to gather in its low-lying infield, and as long as not too many cars are left on the track overnight from the Saturday and Sunday parking lot spillover.

"It's too bad they can't put this surface on the main track," said Cecil, trainer of champion Golden Apples, among others. "I train everything here and only go to the main track to work. Why? Just listen."

Less than 30 yards away, on the other side of a cyclone fence, hooves could be heard pounding like thunder on the main track. In the meantime, on the little track, a handful of horses whispered past.

If Del Mar horsemen expect a bigger training track in their future, though, they can forget it. A number of plans have been shot down in recent years, and now that Del Mar management is rolling the dice with an $8 million synthetic surface installation for the main track by 2007, anything else is on hold.

"The training track issue is probably going to be looked at after we see what Polytrack does," Harper said. "If Polytrack does what we think it could do, we won't need renovation breaks, and that gives you maybe another hour and a half of training time. As for maintenance, everybody I talk to tells me you just pick up the horse pucky, and that's it."

Sounds almost too good to be true.