Del Mar is heading for a fall — eagerly

With Hollywood Park ending, Del Mar will add a November-December meeting in 2014. That could lead to smaller crowds ... and a Breeders' Cup.

Bill Dwyre

8:35 PM EDT, August 14, 2013


Horse racing at Del Mar has long been about turf meeting surf. It's summertime, and the living is easy.

In a sport that is now mostly clumps of uneven grass, Del Mar is a manicured fairway at Augusta National.

These days, the public seems to easily find better places for its entertainment dollar than horse races. Yet Del Mar thrives. It hasn't had a crowd of fewer than 40,000 at opening day since 2004. This year's was 43,030.

"That's taken on a life of its own," says Joe Harper, Del Mar's chief executive for the last 35 years.

The Aug. 25 Pacific Classic is likely to attract a 30,000-plus crowd and is the only regularly scheduled $1-million race remaining in Southern California.

There are reasons beyond the surf and sunshine. Del Mar — like Saratoga, its Eastern counterpart in racing desirability — is a short meeting, usually no more than seven weeks. In racing, less seems to be more.

But change is blowing about in the gentle ocean breezes along the San Diego coast.

Harper, 70, says he is eager.

"We want this," he says. "Parts of it, we want badly."

When Hollywood Park announced it would hold its final race meeting late this year and would become a real estate development, the Southern California racing calendar was left with gaping holes. Three major tracks — Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar — became two. That meant Del Mar's always successful summer gig faced either a curse or an opportunity.

Harper understands the politics and sees mostly opportunity.

"We had to take another meeting," he says. "There was no getting around that. … Everything but seven weeks of the year at Santa Anita wouldn't work."

So Del Mar and Santa Anita have, conditionally, split the pot.

Santa Anita will open its normal signature meeting Dec. 26. But with no Hollywood Park, it will stay open through July 6, giving way to Del Mar's traditional summer fun July 16-Sept. 3.

The extension into the summer heat of 2014 has already raised questions for Santa Anita, but what happens after the usual Los Angeles County Fair racing dates at Fairplex Sept. 4-23 raises more questions.

Santa Anita will have its fall meeting. That's the one that used to belong to Oak Tree Racing Assn., until Santa Anita's Frank Stronach decided he preferred running his own show on those dates, rather than leasing them to a tenant.

The dates are desirable because that's when the Breeders' Cup runs, as it will do this Nov. 1-2 at Santa Anita for the second consecutive year. It will be three in a row when the Breeders' Cup returns to Santa Anita in 2014.

For Del Mar, the risk is taking on another meeting, Nov. 5-Dec. 7. That's a time unfamiliar to its fan base. It goes head to head with kids in school and the NFL. A previous attempt was less than spectacular.

That was in 1967. On those fall dates, Del Mar's attendance averaged 4,173 — it is averaging about 18,000 this summer.

Harper, who was mostly doing photography in public relations then, enjoys telling one particular story. Jim Healy, the Los Angeles broadcasting legend, called and asked him to shoot pictures of all the empty seats.

"I didn't," Harper says, laughing. "That didn't seem to be in our best interests."

By 1969, Oak Tree was running in Los Angeles and Del Mar could settle into its summer of sun and success. Now, Harper takes on the new fall meeting with realism and enthusiasm.

"It won't be what we do now," he says, "but if we do half of our normal business, it will be more than Hollywood Park was doing."

Then there is the opportunity. Del Mar has never had a Breeders' Cup. It wants one.

"Badly," Harper says. "We are bullish."

It has applied for the 2015 event. So has Santa Anita, which would make it four years in a row there. There is a flex week in the current conditional 2015 race schedule that allows the California Horse Racing Board to leave Santa Anita open a week longer or open Del Mar a week earlier to facilitate the Breeders' Cup. Also, Del Mar is removing the previous stumbling block to Breeders' Cup bids by redoing its grass track so it will be wide enough to run a 14-horse field. Now, its maximum is 10.

"The grass is being grown now in the Coachella Valley," Harper says.

He also says that research on past Breeders' Cup days shows that the average temperature at Del Mar was 73 degrees and the average rainfall was 0.1 of an inch.

And so, the campaign has begun.

"We have a great spot," Harper says. "When you land at LAX for a Breeders' Cup, you won't see a lot of posters about that. Here, you will. San Diego is a market just large enough to support you and just small enough to still notice you."

The CHRB is expected to shed the "conditional" label soon and make the 2014 and '15 calendars official. The holdup is filling the stabling shortage left by Hollywood Park's closure.

Eventually, the Breeders' Cup will weigh in on 2015.

Much remains to be settled, but Harper, an old hand at this, expects to be catching some new waves soon.