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Del Mar ready to pop gate with record purses for summer meeting

An exercise rider works with a horse in the starting gate during a morning workout session at Del Mar Racetrack.
An exercise rider works with a horse in the starting gate during a morning workout session in preparation for Friday’s opening day at Del Mar Racetrack.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Wagering increases since pandemic boost money to pay participants

A strange thing happened during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

A new and nationwide audience discovered the summer horse racing season at Del Mar.

Quarantined at home with few other sports on television, remote spectators started watching the racing from the picturesque seaside track. And they started betting on their computers and mobile devices.

The average daily wagering handle at Del Mar in 2020 was more than $17 million — up 44 percent from the pre-pandemic season of 2019 — even though no fans were allowed on the premises.

The average daily handle last season jumped again to a record $18.4 million a day.

“We’ve made many new friends and fans over the past two years,” Del Mar President and COO Josh Rubinstein said Thursday on the eve of opening day for Del Mar’s 83rd summer meeting.

“Ninety percent of our daily handle now comes from beyond the premises,” Rubenstein continued. “We had a lot of people discover Del Mar during the pandemic on the TVG network and the audience has continued to grow.”

A sold-out crowd of about 22,000 is expected Friday as the 31-day meeting opens with a 10-race program that includes the 77th running of the Oceanside Stakes. First post is 2 p.m.

The summer meeting opens a week later than normal this season with the meeting extending past Labor Day for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The premier event of the season — the $1 million Grade I TVG Pacific Classic — will be run Sept. 3, two weeks later than in past years. Del Mar will race Friday through Sunday for its first week, then go on a regular Thursday through Sunday schedule for the majority of the meet. There will be racing on Labor Day Monday (Sept. 5), followed by a three-day final weekend, Sept. 9-11.

The increase in daily wagering totals will result in a total of $25 million paid out in purses this summer — the daily average of more than $800,000 being a record for a meeting in California.

There will be one major absence this meeting.

While training champion Peter Miller is back after skipping the long Santa Anita meeting, six-time Del Mar riding champion Flavien Prat is now campaigning on the East Coast, turning the 2022 riding championship into a wide-open race.

The heir apparent is Juan Hernandez, who finished second to Prat in the jockey race last summer with 32 wins. Also returning are Abel Cedillo (29 wins) and Umberto Rispoli (27 wins). Rispoli, who also campaigned in the east over the past eight months, finished third behind Prat and Hernandez in purse earnings.

Hernandez and Rispoli will be riding the two favorites in today’s Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds at one mile on the turf.

Hernandez will be on Mackinnon, who won the Del Mar Juvenile Turf at a mile last September. The son of American Pharoah then ran third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar on Nov. 5.

Rispoli will be aboard Balnikhov, an Irish-bred gelding who has who has three wins, three seconds and three thirds in 11 races.

There will be two notable additions to the jockey colony.

Florent Geroux, who celebrated his 36th birthday on July 16, will be riding full time at Del Mar this season after appearing at the track since 2016 in major stakes races. Geroux has more than 1,900 career wins — including three last summer at Del Mar.

Seventeen-year-old Diego Herrera, whose apprenticeship ended three months ago, finished third in the jockey standings at the recently concluded Los Alamitos meet and was ninth in the standings at Santa Anita.

Another new face at Del Mar this season will be turf course manager John Beggin, who succeeds Leif Dickenson. Beggin worked with Dickenson for several years.

Last year’s opening-day attendance was limited to 15,000 coming out of the pandemic. This year’s limit is around 22,000. But it was set more by what Rubinstein said Del Mar officials learned about fans’ experience at Del Mar.

“Last opening day and again during the Breeders’ Cup last November, we discovered our clientele had a much better experience with shorter lines at the (betting) windows and at the concession windows,” said Rubinstein. “We had great feedback and adjusted accordingly to improve the fan experience.”

Center is a freelance writer.


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