Hats off to thoroughbreds

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club's 69th season of summer thoroughbred horseracing will commence on Wednesday, not a day too soon for the throngs of race fans and partiers that descend on the area each year - and not a day too soon for the track's President and General Manager Joe Harper, who is beginning his 30th year in charge of one of the country's most successful racetracks.

"I still do get excited," said Harper, a Del Mar resident. "It's still a passion for me. I love the people, the employees and the horses and there's no better place to do it than Del Mar."

Although the track at Del Mar has gained a far-reaching reputation as a party and social scene, it's still the horses that are the big draw and the stars have shown on Del Mar with names such as Seabiscuit, Cigar and various other Kentucky Derby and Breeders Cup champions calling the seaside track home for the summer.

But to many in horse-crazy northern San Diego County, the safety of those horses continues to be a concern.

This will be the second year of racing on the Polytrack artificial racing surface installed with much fanfare last season in an effort to cut down on fatal breakdowns of equine competitors, Success was achieved well into the second half of the 2007 race meet with no fatalities whatsoever on the new surface. There were however two racing-related fatalities in the final weeks of the season on Polytrack, in addition to four breakdowns during early morning training hours on the surface. Additionally five horses were euthanized after accidents on the track's turf course bringing the fatality total to 11 - a decrease of seven fatalities from the 2006 season. But that's still 11 too many according to Harper, who says the Polytrack surface will continue to get constant attention.

Track officials also received some complaints from horsemen and bettors over inconsistencies with the new racing surface including some very slow race times.

There were some bugs to be worked out with Polytrack according to Harper. The surface played tighter in the morning and looser in the warmer afternoons last year and during the off-season more wax was added to the surface and more water will be added to the surface as needed, depending on temperature readings. Some large reverse-osmosis water tanks have been installed on the track's backstretch to hold the additional water and salinity levels of the water will be constantly checked said Harper.

"It will still be slower than fast during the afternoon," said Harper, "but it will speed up a little. We will still keep it safe."

The track will undoubtedly still be under scrutiny again, especially after the high profile fatal breakdown of the filly Eight Belles during this year's Kentucky Derby. The use of steroids in the sport has also received scrutiny of late even being addressed in a recent Congressional hearing. "I applaud the Congressional committee," said Harper, its high time."

Harper said ultimately there is only so much track management can do and that much of the responsibility of a horse's safety remains with its owner and trainer.

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