Ag. District board approves plan to add fall race meet

By Joe Tash

The sounds of thundering hooves, cheering crowds and ringing cash registers could become a fall fixture in San Diego County, if a proposal to expand horse racing at the Del Mar Racetrack receives approval from state regulators.

The board of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds, approved a plan to add a fall race meet in both 2014 and 2015 at its meeting on Tuesday, June 4. The new fall race dates would be in addition to the normal summer race meet which takes place in July, August and early September. Fall racing was last held at Del Mar in 1967.

The expanded racing season could also put San Diego in the running for hosting the Breeder’s Cup, a two-day horse racing event that some local officials have said is bigger than the Super Bowl in terms of economic impact.

Joe Harper, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, will lead a delegation to New York this week to make a pitch for hosting the prestigious racing event in late October 2015.

“The best horses in the world would be here for two days of racing,” if the Del Mar track lands the Breeder’s Cup, Harper told the 22nd DAA board. “We’d see the biggest crowd we’ve ever had for horse racing.”

Harper said the Breeder’s Cup is estimated to pack a $70 million punch for the local economy where the event is held. He said the event’s organizers will announce their choice of venue for the 2015 event about a year from now.

In addition to the expanded racing schedule, a $3.7 million project to widen the racetrack’s turf course to 80 feet – another prerequisite for hosting the Breeder’s Cup – will begin after the conclusion of this year’s summer race meet in September. Harper said the expanded course will accommodate a field of 14 horses, up from the current maximum of 10.

The fall meet became a possibility in May, when the owners of Hollywood Park in Los Angeles announced that track’s closure by the end of this year. On May 23, the California Horse Racing Board approved the new dates for Del Mar.

Two other state agencies – the California Coastal Commission and the State Racetrack Leasing Commission – also must approve the expanded race schedule, Harper said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, 22nd DAA board member David Watson said it might be difficult to get Coastal Commission approval for the 2014 dates by the end of this year, when the decision would have to be made.

This year’s summer racing season at Del Mar will run from July 17 through Sept. 4. The proposed schedule for next year is July 16 - Sept. 3, and Nov. 5 - Dec. 7. The proposed 2015 schedule is July 15 - Sept. 7, and Oct. 28 - Dec. 6.

Harper said the fall race meet would bring in an estimated $1 million in additional revenue to the 22nd DAA, mostly from food and beverage sales.

Fairgrounds general manager Tim Fennell said he and the Thoroughbred Club have been talking about expanding the track’s racing season for several years. He said some of the fairground’s fall and winter events, such as the popular Holiday of Lights attraction, might need to be moved or even cancelled.

But he said the 22nd DAA should “leverage this opportunity to all of our advantage.”

“There’s going to be some impacts but I think we can work through those,” Fennell said.

The news about fall racing and the Breeder’s Cup comes as the 22nd DAA and the county of San Diego are negotiating to form a joint powers authority that would assume day-to-day control of the fairgrounds’ operations. Board president Adam Day announced Tuesday that a special meeting will be held on June 17 to discuss the proposed partnership between the county and the 22nd DAA.

The city of Del Mar, which over the years has tangled both verbally and legally with the 22nd DAA over the impacts of the fairground on city residents, welcomed the prospect of the Breeder’s Cup coming to the racetrack.

At its meeting on Monday, June 3, the council approved a resolution supporting the racetrack’s bid to host the event.

“Whereas, the Del Mar Race Track is the Crown Jewel of Horse Racing on the West Coast; and Whereas, no other Horse Racing venue can provide the beautiful, blue Pacific Ocean as its backdrop and the Southern California feeling of the sun, sand and surf as Del Mar can, being located on the beach… Now, therefore, be it resolved, that the City Council of Del Mar, California is cordially inviting the Breeders’ Cup to Del Mar,” read the resolution authored by City Manager Scott Huth.

Harper said it’s difficult to predict if the Del Mar racetrack’s bid to host the Breeder’s Cup will succeed, but he’s taking no chances – he’ll bring video testimonials from former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints and an ex-San Diego Charger.

Del Mar has a lot going for it, said Harper, including great weather, plenty of top hotels and restaurants and a spectacular setting.

“I think we’re looking very attractive to the Breeder’s Cup,” he said.