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.
“It gets down to where the rubber meets the road,” he said, “a lot of it is out of our control. It’s time to ask questions and get people off the dime.”
Harper admits there is some danger and unfortunate accidents inherent to the sport.
“From all reports that was a very sound horse going into the race,” he said of Eight Belles.
Harper says he still believes despite some reports, that the racing industry remains healthy.
“I’m observing from a narrower and narrower view being at Del Mar,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier with the way things are here. I think for the most part the industry is in pretty good shape. The problems are mostly self-inflicted.”
But don’t look for Del Mar to shoot itself in the foot anytime soon. Year after year the track continues to maintain its position among the upper echelon of U. S. racetracks in handle and attendance.
The 2008 festivities kick-off on Opening Day with the annual “One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest,” which takes the longtime tradition of millinery finery to often extreme levels. Entries for the contest will be taken between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. in the Plaza de Mexico just inside the main gates. Categories include “Best Racing Theme,” “Funniest or Most Outrageous,” “Most Glamorous” and “Best Flowers.” Grand Prize will be a 42'’ Toshiba LCD TV and DVR. Monetary prizes will also be presented.
A newer tradition, at least in Del Mar terms is that of Friday post-races concerts. Held for the last 14 years, “4 O’Clock Fridays” - referring to a late start time for the day’s races - have become an extremely popular addition to the racing season. Performers this year include Gavin Rossdale (July 18), former lead singer of Bush and the popular group Pinback (Aug.1). Three Saturday infield concerts will also be held this year including an appearance by the superstar duo Gnarls Barkley on July 26. Ziggy Marley will appear at the Aug. 9 Reggae Festival and Devo will headline the Microbrew Festival on Aug. 30. A complete concert schedule along with MP3 files of performers’ music can be found at www.delmarscene.com. Numerous other giveaways, family events and seminars will be held throughout the 44-day race meeting.
But it’s the thrill of thoroughbred racing, and the hope of that big betting score that that brings the throngs of visitors to the track. Last year the track had the second highest “handle” - or amount of money wagered - in its history.
Harpers said he has hopes that will continue despite a moribund national and local economy.
“It is a concern,” he said. “It’s an unknown what it is going to do to us. We will be watching our pennies a little more than we would normally.’
He said prices at the track would remain at last year’s levels and said the track plans several new incentives like happy hours and expanded senior days.
“Hopefully people will consider the track a bargain,” he said.
Racing will be held July 16 through Sept. 3. First post is 2 p.m., Fridays at 4 p.m. with Friday Aug. 15, 22 and 29 at 3:30 p.m. For complete information and schedule of events go to
or call (858) 755-1141.