The 12-stall starting gate for the 75th anniversary racing season arrived Monday around 2 p.m. Its escort, on the way down from Santa Anita, was the man who’ll spring it about 333 times in the course of the meeting which starts Wednesday.
John Lopez, who’ll take over the job this season while 14-year Del Mar starter Gary Brinson deals with family matters, was part of the transportation team that brought the gate south. The gate had been given a 2 ½ month hiatus after the Santa Anita meeting ended. In his spare time Lopez did maintenance and refurbishment work on it, not knowing it would be the major piece of equipment he’d need when called upon to fill the starter’s role.
Lopez, 54, has had the job of getting thoroughbreds into and out of the starting gate since he was 19. He learned under a who’s who of Southern California starters beginning with Bob Yerian at Del Mar in 1968 and including Brinson, Tucker and Jay Slender.
His first memories of Del Mar? “Sleeping right out there by the railroad tracks in the back of my dad’s station wagon,” Lopez said, motioning to the northwest corner of the parking lot. “Starving to death, just about.”
It wasn’t that bad a life for a young kid who had become fascinated with the gate crew while on trips to the old Caliente and L.A. area tracks and talked his way into a job. The kid learned from the old timers on the early-years crews. He stuck with it despite the beatings high-strung horses sometimes give out – he’s had a separated shoulder, bruised and battered knees and ankles, and of course been bitten and stepped on many times. The lower part of the ring finger on his left hand is one outsized lump from getting hung by it on a gate crossbar years ago.
“It’s in my blood, I guess,” Lopez said. “Now I got my sons (Kyle, 27, and John, 24) working with me.” Lopez and his wife, Mary, have been married for 28 years. They have six children and eight grandchildren.
Not exactly the nervous type, Lopez doesn’t expect to be fazed at all by the duties ahead. Not even for the first race on opening day, when the air is electric and the crowd greets the start with a loud roar.
“You keep your focus and wait for that split second of silence (to hit the button),” Lopez said. While Brinson’s trademark was making the start from ground level, Lopez answers to a higher calling.
“I’ll be up in the starters’ stand, ” Lopez said. “I’ve done it from the ground before, but that’s kind of dangerous.”
STORMELLO CONNECTION HAS A BROTHER FOR OCEANSIDE
Veteran owner/breeder/trainer Bill Currin and his longtime partner, San Diego businessman Al Eisman, co-owners of one-time Grade I stakes winner Stormello, will be represented in the second division of the Oceanside Stakes by My Best Brother.
The 3-year-old colt, by Stormy Atlantic out of the Carson City mare Wilshewed, is a full brother to Stormello. As a 2-year-old in 2006, Stormello finished third in the Best Pal and Futurity at Del Mar but went on in the fall to capture the Grade I Norfolk at Santa Anita and Hollywood Futurity at Hollywood Park.
Retired after his 3-year-old season, Stormello spent three years at stud, shuttling between The Vinery in Kentucky and Argentina, and died from colic in April of 2011.
My Best Brother debuted at Del Mar in August of last year with an eighth-place finish. He notched wins in his last two starts, in May and June at Hollywood Park to earn a stakes shot.
“This horse has really improved in the last two,” trainer Julio Canani said. “I changed a few things and now his mind is really on his business.”
My Best Brother is the only horse Currin and Eisman own in partnership. Currin said he has two young progeny of Stormello plus a foal from the mating of Bernardini and Wilshewed that will go in the November sale at Keeneland. The mare has delivered a Giant’s Causeway baby this spring and is in foal again to the same sire.
NEW DAD MILLER HAS TWO FOR OCEANSIDE
These are busy, but exciting and happy times for trainer Peter Miller.
Miller, 45, and his wife Lani became first-time parents when they welcomed Jacob Ellis to the family six weeks ago. Also keeping him occupied this summer will be the 30 horses he has at Del Mar and another 30 at Hollywood Park.
The Carlsbad resident, with two career stakes victories at Del Mar, will have a chance to double that total when he sends out Guidopanzini and Majestic City in divisions of Wednesday’s Oceanside Stakes.
Miller’s stable has accounted for more than $1 million in earnings each year since 2006, and is coming off a best of 55 wins and more than $2.2 million in earnings in 2011. A breakthrough moment was his first Grade I victory, with the filly Set Play in the 2007 Del Mar Debutante.
Guidopanzini, a son of Giacomo owned by the Lanni Family Trust, goes in the sixth-race, first division of the $100,000 mile turf event. The chestnut gelding, 20-1 on the Oceanside opening line, notched his initial victory in his fifth career start on May 20 at Hollywood Park and has two fifth-place finishes since.
“He broke his maiden well and has pretty decent tries in the two allowance races,” Miller said. “He’s training forwardly and we think he’ll run a big race.”
Majestic City, owned by the Bloom Racing Stable LLC partnership group headed by Jeff Bloom of Oceanside, earned $245,570 in a 2-year-old campaign highlighted by a victory in the Grade III Hollywood Juvenile Championship and runner-up finishes in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity (disqualified to third) and Grade I Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.
The City Zip colt was third in a turf sprint against older horses in June at Hollywood Park, but didn’t handle the dirt surface at Charles Town in a $400,000 stakes at the end of the month. Majestic City is 10-1 on the opening line.
“He looks good and he’s training well,” Bloom said. “We know he’s in against some good horses. It’s tough to say which division (of the Oceanside) might be the tougher one.”
The Bloom Racing Stable has six horses ready for the meeting and looks to run its first 2-year-old, A Red Tie Day, on Saturday.
BAFFERT REALISTIC ABOUT MEETING PROSPECTS
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, coming off a Hollywood Park meeting in which he won a second straight trainers’ title with 35 wins, eight more than John Sadler, doesn’t come into the Del Mar meeting with expectations of posting those kinds of numbers.
Del Mar’s all-time leader for stakes wins by a large margin (93-74 over Charlie Whittingham and Ron McAnally) continues to be a major factor in the big-money races. But he hasn’t added a meet training title to the seven straight posted from 1997-2003 and his overall representation and win numbers are well down since the start of the Polytrack era in 2007.
In 2011, Baffert had eight wins from 68 starters (12 percent), a low since his rise to prominence in the 1990s. The stats for the four previous years: 2010 – 16 wins from 91 starters; 2009 – 16-for-86; 2008 – 9 for 63; and 2007 – 10 for 59.
Sixteen stakes victories over the same period, including three Del Mar Futurities and two Pacific Classics, illustrate Baffert’s approach to the seaside track these days.
“I’ve got a lot of 2-year-olds and a few older horses I bring down here and see how they handle the track,” Baffert said this morning. “I can tell in about two workouts if they like the track, and the ones who don’t I either take to Santa Anita or ship (east). I’m fortunate I can do that.”
Baffert has two horses entered for Opening Day, his only representatives in the first three days of the meeting. One, Midnight Crooner, is 4-1 on the opening line for the first division of the Oceanside Stakes. The colt is a full brother to 2011 Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude.
CLOSERS -- The inaugural “Jockey for a Cause” Charity Event fundraiser will be held Wednesday at the DeHaven Estate in Rancho Santa Fe, following the races. The party will be hosted by horse owner Jeff DeHaven, and proceeds will provide funding for two charities – The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF) and The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation, which assists riders and others in the racing industry facing a financial crisis. While a limited number of tickets are still available, a new option has been created for those who may not be able to attend but desire to donate. People who wish to contribute $10 to one of the charities can text the word “jockey” to 50555, and a $10 donation will appear on that person’s cell phone bill … Notable works: Affirmed Handicap winner Nonios, 5 furlongs in 1:01.80, and Rousing Sermon, 5 furlongs in 1:02.80 for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Rousing Sermon was prepping for the Real Good Deal Stakes on Friday, Aug. 3.