Del Mar’s 72nd season of Thoroughbred sport raced to a successful conclusion Wednesday, finishing out a 37-day run that many are seeing as one of the best in its storied history.
The track’s final attendance count at the end of its seven-week session tallied up at 660,245, nearly even with 2010’s total of 662,521, meaning a daily average of 17,844 in 2011 vs. last year’s 17,906. Though the final numbers showed a slight percentage decline of 0.3%, the fact remains that the hearty crowds that click through the turnstiles on a season-long basis are the best in the west by far and right at the very top in the national picture.
Del Mar’s handle figures showed a slight decline of 4.2%, dipping from $12,133,302 to $11,628,660 on a daily average basis. Overall, the 2011 total handle was $430,260,422 as opposed to last year’s $448,932,160.
And though handle inched down, it still raced ahead of pre-meet projections and – with an especially strong finish in the final days of the session -- will allow the track to pay its horsemen a record purse underpayment of more than $1.5-million when all is said and done, a bonus of more than 10% on top of the nation’s highest overnight purses.
“I’m not going to get into the obvious things about the economy and lack of racing stock and all those other ready-made excuses,” said Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s CEO, president and general manager, Joe Harper. “What I want to say is this: We adapted, we adjusted, we partnered, we promoted and we worked hard. In the end, we managed to do what most everyone in this business hopes to do – we conducted a helluva good race meeting that was fun for everyone involved.”
Among the things that Harper and his crew could boast of as the curtain fell on their summer stand:
• Del Mar offered the highest overnight purses in America during its meeting, averaging a track record sum estimated at $630,000 per day. This was an approximate 13.7% increase over 2010’s daily average of $556,324.
• The track’s innovative “Ship and Win” program – in which horsemen were given monetary incentives to bring in horses from out-of-state – lured more than 100 new runners to Del Mar, many of them making more than one start during the meet. The track worked hand-in-glove with the Thoroughbred Owners of California to draw the extra horses, some from out-of-state stables, others purchased and brought to the meet by local owners. Their presence eased pressure to fill fields and added spice to the fan’s handicapping puzzles. All told, the “Ship and Win” program was worth $107,000 in $1,000 starter bonuses and $61,516 in 20% purse bonus rewards for a grand total of $168,516.
• Its claiming box, a signal as to how horsemen see the viability of the game, burst with activity throughout the summer, finishing up with 246 total claims for $5,965,500 as opposed to 2010’s numbers of 141 claims for a total of $3,635,500.
• Several new bets were instituted for the 2011 season, including the “50¢ Players Pick 5” with a reduced takeout that proved popular with the wagering public. Besides, the track experimented with “seeding” its Sunday Pick Six Pools with a $50,000 carryover that pumped up the handle on that longtime California staple by 15% on Sundays and led to several husky next-day carryovers.
• Bucking industry trends, Del Mar actually increased its field size during the stand from 8.2 last year to 8.4 in 2011, yet another flag of encouragement for those spotting trends in the business. Additionally, Del Mar maintained a five-day race week and in total ran only two fewer races than it offered in 2010.
• In keeping with its racing-is-fun theme, Del Mar conducted a campy “Battle of the Exes” match race between formerly engaged jockeys Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland on August 7 that drew huge response from both local and national media. It also drew an estimated extra 4,000 fans to the racetrack that afternoon.
• The track’s record of eclipsing itself for Opening Day attendance continued its remarkable run when a Del Mar single-day record throng of 46,588 came on board to party, meaning first-day attendance has risen for the last seven years straight. The Opening Day numbers tie into the track’s overall rise in attendance that has come forward since the turn of the century. In 2000, Del Mar averaged 14,252 per afternoon on track. This season’s daily average of 17,844 means that number has increased by approximately 25%.