Del Mar eagerly awaits hosting Breeders’ Cup races again

A crowd of more than 26,000 attended Saturday's second day of Breeders' Cup races at Del Mar.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Attendance drops in wake of pandemic but record handle aids cause


The significantly lower attendance figures at Del Mar for this year’s Breeders’ Cup apparently will not hinder the track’s hopes of hosting future events.

The two-day attendance of 47,089 was 33 percent lower than the 2017 total of 70,420.

But track and Breeders’ Cup officials Sunday attributed the drop to lingering aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a late decision not to sell general admission tickets in the infield.

“With the combination of safe racing, record handle, a spectacular setting and gracious local hospitality, we consider this another successful renewal of our World Championships,” Breeders’ Cup Ltd. President and CEO Drew Fleming said.

“Del Mar will certainly be considered as a future host site and we look forward to those conversations.”

Not surprisingly, so does Del Mar.

“The Breeders’ Cup really enjoys being here,” Josh Rubinstein, president and COO of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said. “We’d love to have a return visit soon. The Breeders’ Cup loves our racing surfaces and facilities. The love the city and the support.

“Those folks want to come back and we want it to happen.”

The question then becomes “when?”

Only the 2022 Breeders’ Cup is committed to a site — Keeneland.

“What years, I don’t want to speculate,” said Rubinstein. “We’d like to have it as often as possible, recognizing there are other great facilities out there who would seek it. The horsemen and women love coming to Del Mar.”

Starting in 2008, the Breeders’ Cup has been held at just four tracks in two states — Keeneland and Churchill Downs in Kentucky along with Del Mar and Santa Anita. In recent years it has alternated between the two states; if that continues, it would be at Santa Anita in 2023 and Del Mar in 2025.

While this year’s attendance figures were down, the Breeders’ Cup has smashed records for wagering handles in each of its two visits to Del Mar.

The two-day handle of $182,165,297 was 4.3 percent above the previous Breeders’ Cup record of $174,628,926 set in 2019. And it was 9.7 percent above the $166,077,486 handle from Del Mar’s first Breeders’ Cup in 2017.

Attendance in 2017 was supposed to be capped at 37,000 — the Saturday number was actually 37,692 — and officials had said the same would be true this year.

But on Sunday, Rubinstein said Saturday’s crowd of 26,553 was actually above what Breeders’ Cup and Del Mar officials had considered the true capacity for the event.

“Based on ongoing precautions, we restricted the on-site capacity to approximately 26,000 per day,” said Rubinstein. “Twenty-thousand seated and 6,000 between general admission, guests and media.

“Saturday we were right at capacity.”

Rubinstein said capacity was lowered because of increased distancing between tables and seats in some of the temporary pavilions and chalets and the fact a decision was made early in October to not open the infield to general admission sales.

“The big difference (between 2017 and 2021) was the general admission sales,” said Rubinstein. “We sold general admission tickets to the infield in 2017. We didn’t this year.”

Another major element in the reduced crowd numbers is the lingering effects of COVID-19.

Eased United States travel restrictions on visitors from Europe go into effect today.

“Many of the sport’s international fans couldn’t travel to the Breeders’ Cup,” said Rubinstein. “Others are still hesitant to travel. International sales, while we don’t have an exact number, that category was off significantly.

“Another segment that was down was our corporate business. Corporations still are not purchasing large hospitality blocks. It’s not down just for us. Talk to Torrey Pines and the U.S. Open. And there was also a question of whether or not we could find enough temporary staffing for the event.

“Based on the environment, we were very pleased with the attendance. And we’re very proud of the way our team and concessionaires handled the food and beverage service.”

In 2017, 75 percent of the Breeders’ Cup attendance was from outside the area. While Rubinstein doesn’t have the final numbers, he said local attendance was “significantly higher” this year.

“Del Mar has a very good reputation nationally and internationally,” said Rubinstein. “When the reopening happened, we thought everything would go back to normal. We soon realized it wasn’t that way.”

Cup notes

— Classic champion Knicks Go and Dirt Mile winner Life Is Good could face each other in the Pegasus World Cup in January at Gulfstream Park before the former heads off to stallion duty.

— Trainer Bob Baffert said he didn’t know when Classic runner-up Medina Spirit would start next but one future goal could be the Saudi Cup in February. Baffert said he did not know whether the 4-year-old filly Gamine, who was beaten at 2-5 in an attempt to repeat as Filly & Mare Sprint champ, would be retired or race next year.

— There were three European-based winners — Modern Games (Juvenile Turf), Space Blues (Mile) and Yibir (Turf). All three were trained by Charlie Appleby and ridden by William Buick for Godolphin Racing, which became the first owner and breeder to have three winners in the same Breeders’ Cup.

— Four Cup winners were based in Kentucky, three in New York and two each in Japan and Southern California.

— Irad Ortiz Jr., who rode three winners, earned the Bill Shoemaker Award for the top jockey in the Breeders’ Cup for the fourth straight year. He got the award via a tiebreaker with Buick thanks to four other top-four finishes (Buick had none).


— After being shut out in the Breeders’ Cup races, reigning Del Mar jockey champion Flavien Prat rode two winners Sunday, including odds-on favorite Bella Vita ($3.20) in the $100,000 Betty Grable Stakes — a 7-furlong race for older fillies and mares. It was the fifth straight victory for Prat in the Betty Grable.

— Racing resumes Friday with an eight-race card. First post is 12:30 p.m.

Center is a freelance writer.