Tuesday, July 20, 2010
The Looming of Del Mar
LOS ANGELES, July 19, 2010--Del Mar looms. More than ever, it's the last breath of fresh air for California horse racing. Members of the California Horse Racing Board should genuflect at Del Mar's gates, because without Del Mar the game is a busted wheel in the state that used to go toe to toe with New York for national bragging rights. In a game long on survivors, but most of them hangers-on more than anything else, Del Mar is a hardy survivor. It is a seven-week example of the Good Old Days, an annual summertime testimonial to the way the game used to be played. In the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard showed up at the famed jeweler and asked John McGiver, the man behind the counter, if a ring they found in a box of Cracker Jack could be engraved. McGiver tried to be snooty, but he couldn't. "Do they still really have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes?" he said. "That's nice to know. It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past, that sort of thing." Del Mar is what you find in the bottom of the Cracker Jack box.
In 1991, Del Mar finally beat that rap. The late John Mabee, chairman of the board, told the track president, Joe Harper, to put up a purse of $1 million and run a race for older horses in the middle of the season. The inaugural Pacific Classic wasn't a setup; Mabee's Best Pal won the thing fair and square and Mabee, not chagrinned in the least, never gave one thought to throwing the trophy back.
It was the late trainer, Bobby Frankel, who owned the Pacific Classic after that, at least for the next four years, and Del Mar gave the stake the pizazz originally intended when it lured Cigar into the field in 1996. Cigar had won 16 straight races, as many as Citation, while racing all over the country in a campaign that will never be attempted again.
But at Del Mar Cigar was beaten (Dare and Go won the race). I thought Del Mar was courting public-relations disaster, shoehorning a record 44,000 into the track and trying to please them, but the customer-service complaints were negligible. The day gave Del Mar reason to think it could host a Breeders' Cup some day, and some day it will.
Meantime, Del Mar is the last jewel in California's tarnished crown. The most depressing Hollywood Park season ever just ended, as the track's inexorable death march into oblivion took several seven-league steps. The big days at Santa Anita are fewer and fewer, the impact of those days less and less, as its embattled owner, Frank Stronach, fiddles while his racing empire burns. Another Stronach property, Golden Gate Fields, is all that's left of the game in Northern California. The monthly racing board meetings more resemble a wake. The commissioners, presiding over a train wreck, must practice hand-wringing between meetings.
Once upon a time, Del Mar could unlock the turnstiles and find the spin of people deafening, but now the track must work hard to stay on top. The daily betting handle was a million dollars a day more three years ago. Attendance is sturdy but flat. Last year's gains at the gate were reflected by Del Mar pulling Mondays from the schedule, as they will do this year. Horsemen no longer save their horses for Del Mar, they run them when they can. Owners can't cherry-pick a Del Mar race or two, while starving the rest of the year. If there is one race symtomatic of the horse-population problem, it is Del Mar's traditional opening-day Oceanside Stakes. Split into divisions for decades, the Oceanside as been a one-division stake the last two years.
Also, Del Mar, like the other California tracks, has been swept into the synthetic-track vortex that the narrow-minded racing board created. New at Del Mar is Richard Tedesco, a track superintendent who's worked at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. Twelve horses died on the Polytrack at Del Mar last summer. "Del Mar asked me to make this a safer race track," Tedesco told the North County Times.
There are always a few givens at the opening of a Del Mar meet. Dozens of women will show up wearing hats bigger than The Ritz, and some of them will go home with prizes. At the Turf Club bar, where track founder Bing Crosby used to hang out, tanned young men will look up to blondes in six-inch heels. None of the first-day casualties will be around for the second day of racing. On opening day, Hank Wesch of the San Diego Union-Tribune will be hither and yon, interviewing horsemen and cranking out stories about them. The Union-Tribune never could afford to pay Wesch by the word, but that's not the reason this will be his last Del Mar season. A victim of the shrinking newspaper business, Wesch was recently forced to take a buyout, effective when Del Mar closes in early September. Del Mar might still be the exception, but Wesch was wedded to a moribund enterprise while covering a moribund business. Even though that's just two strikes, he's still out.