By Julie Sarno
The 75th anniversary season at Del Mar was one for the record books. The track opened with a record attendance of 47,339 and closed with records set by jockeys and trainers.
Opening day set the pace for the 37-day race meet when a record number of people spun through the turnstiles to enjoy the first day of racing and the One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest. On opening day, the record crowd included many in hats competing for prizes in the One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats contest won by Daniella Lopez of Imperial Beach.
San Diego resident and 2007 Grand Prize winner Lori Shelton created a spot-on replica of the blue Del Mar 75th Anniversary logo from feathers, beads and flowers. My Best Brother, owned by Solana Beach resident Bill Currin and Alvin Eisman, won a division of the Oceanside Stakes and then went on to finish second in the La Jolla Handicap before winning the G2 Del Mar Derby.
Jockey Rafael Bejarano won a record 13 stakes races during the Del Mar race meet, bettering the record of 12 in one season held by Laffit Pincay, Jr., Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens and Cory Nakatani. Jockey Joe Talamo, who finished second in the standings with 43 wins, won 12 stakes races. Trainer Bob Baffert, absent on closing day because of the death of his father, recorded his ninth stakes victory of the race meet when Rolling Fog won the Del Mar Futurity. With 11 victories in the Del Mar Futurity, he has won more than any other trainer. Baffert also leads in stakes wins at the seaside oval with 102, far more than Ron McAnally and the late Charlie Whittingham, each with 74.
Peter Miller topped the trainers’ standings, saddling the most winners at Del Mar to capture his first training title at a major race track. The race for the leading trainer title was settled on closing day. Miller saddled three winners of closing day to best Baffert, 21 wins to 20.
“The 75th Anniversary Meet was in fact the Dream Meet,” said Joe Harper, a Del Mar resident, following the last race on closing day. “There were major increases in betting handles both on track and off track, the largest purse distribution for horsemen in our history, plenty of horses which led to an increase in the number of races and field sizes, a record number of pick 6 carry overs and another record opening day crowd. Except for some pesky elevators, a pretty smooth operation.”
Throughout the season, the track’s storied history was celebrated. On Opening Saturday, a Bing Crosby look-a-like reenacted welcoming the first guest to the track, as Bing had done on July 3, 1937 when the track opened. Crosby was one of the most famous entertainers of his day. One of Bing’s grandsons, who looked more like his famous grandfather than the look-a-like, presented the trophy on Sunday, July 29, for the G1 Bing Crosby Stakes won by Amazombie.
Entertainment, concerts and giveaways combined with competitive racing to draw casual and veteran racegoers from far and wide. For those who liked horse racing, there was plenty of good competition on the track, including the $1,000,000 Pacific Classic which drew a competitive field of 10 and was won by East Coast invader Dullahan, owned by Donegal Racing. The 3-year-old colt took on older horses to win the 1 1/4-mile test. Earlier this year, Dullahan had finished third in the Kentucky Derby. He is a half brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. A total of $23,000,368 was wagered on and off track on Pacific Classic Day, the fourth highest figure for that day, according to track Chief Financial Officer Mike Ernst.
Donegal Racing ranked as leading owners at the meet by earnings, with the $600,000 in purse money from the Pacific Classic. Ranked second to Donegal was Jay Em Ess Stakes with $423,970 in purse money won. In races won, owners Glen Hill Stable and Doubledown Stable tied with five apiece.
Each day, a Hippity-Hop Derby added color at the track between races, supervised by the track’s director of simulcasting, Paul Porter, and featuring youngsters from Camp Del Mar. Fans clapped or cringed each day when an aspiring vocalist would “Sing with Bing,” giving an a cappella rendition of the first few lines of “Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” the song played before the first race and following the last race each day. Fans enjoyed the special arrangements played each day by bugler Les Kepics prior to the last race.
For those in the front office, it all comes down to the final numbers. During the 37-day race meet, total attendance on- track was 652,034, down 1.2 percent from 660,245 in 2011. Daily average attendance for 2012 was 17,623. Total pari-mutuel handle on-track was $87,474,905, an increase of 13.3 percent over 2011, when the handle wagered on-track was $77,224,199. The race meet’s total pari-mutuel handle, (including all off-track and advance deposit wagering and uncommingled sources) was $458,519,873, for a daily average of $12,392,429. This is an increase of 6.6 percent over 2011 figure of $430,278,585. The increased handle allowed the daily average purses paid to horsemen to increase to a record $667,755.
“We are delighted with the outstanding results of our 2012 race meet,” said Mike Ernst, DMTC’s executive vice president, finance and CFO. “Our racing, marketing and operations departments – as well as our entire staff – worked extremely hard on this memorable meet. With the tremendous support of our horsemen, our 75th anniversary marked a rewarding – and as is usually the case at Del Mar – entertaining summer of Thoroughbred sport.”
The major blot on the summer meet is the equine deaths, which this summer totalled 11, nine euthanized as a result of injuries and two dying from heart attacks. A new synthetic racing surface, Polytrack, was installed in 2007 which has reduced the number of fatalities.
“There’s never a perfect meeting (regarding horse breakdowns), but I think it’s better than it was before the (Polytrack) surface was put down in 2007,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. “I think they’re getting much more experience at managing the track.”
Trainer Jack Carava commented on the racing surface in the Del Mar Stable notes, “I thought Rich (Tedesco, track superintendent) did a good job with the track, kept the injuries down to a minimum and I thought it was a good meet all the way around ... Successful, obviously, for the handle and stuff like that. Field size was up and that was something we haven’t had for a long time. Having trouble getting horses in because there were too many entries as opposed to not enough was very different.”
The kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells that was the summer race meet at Del Mar is a memory. The wafting fragrance of the Kettle Corn, the brightly colored jockey silks, the dusky smell of the horses, the bugler’s call to post have faded, not to return until next July.