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Del Mar summer meet opens with buzz about Breeders' Cup in fall

Monday, July 17th, 2017

Barbara D. Livingston
Del Mar is expecting a crowd of more than 40,000 for opening day on Wednesday.

The party atmosphere at Wednesday’s opening day of the Del Mar summer meeting is like no other day at the seaside track.

The key elements will be in place – a massive, rowdy crowd, with many focused on people watching as much as race watching, and plenty of competitive races for folks who are focused on racing, or who can peel away from the bar scene long enough to find a tote machine.

Opening day is unique.

But this year, it will not be the biggest day of the year at Del Mar. The Breeders’ Cup is coming to town in November for the first time.

The seven-week summer season, which concludes Sept. 4, will feature plenty of important stakes, many of which are precursors to Breeders’ Cup races on Nov. 3-4.

:: First time ever! Get Del Mar Clocker Reports for the 2017 summer meet

“It’s kind of cool,” track president Joe Harper said last weekend. “I think there is more buzz about everything, and the Breeders’ Cup is the basis for all of that.

“What we’ve seen so far is getting a Breeders’ Cup has a certain amount of marketing value for the summer. We’ve seen more horsemen interested in Del Mar. We’re getting some attention.”

Harper and other track officials expect a bumper crowd of more than 40,000 on Wednesday that may be the largest of the summer season.

The summer’s 36-day meeting is highlighted by five Grade 1 races, led by the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 19. Arrogate, the world’s top-rated horse, is the early favorite for that race and is scheduled to start in Saturday’s Grade 2 San Diego Handicap.

Harper is hopeful Arrogate can pique the interest of general sports fans.

“I’ve given speeches about the greatest horse in the world running here,” Harper said.

Arrogate should have a positive effect on attendance and handle, and the track needs a successful summer meeting to offset declines in 2016, when all-sources handle fell 1 percent and attendance declined 7 percent.

One key to stronger betting will be to increase field sizes. The 2016 Del Mar summer meeting averaged 8.31 runners per race, down from 8.79 runners at the 2015 summer meeting. Recent race meetings at Santa Anita and Los Alamitos have struggled to attract runners.

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Larger fields could lead to growth in handle.

“It depends on what happens at the entry booth, if we can keep the field size up,” Harper said.

Midway through the 2016 summer meeting, purses were reduced by approximately 5 percent for the final weeks of the season because of the business declines. Worse were a rash of equine fatalities at the start of the summer meeting.

“It was a tough summer with the injuries,” Harper said. “We had to cut purses. Hopefully, this year will be smoother.”

This will be the first summer meeting with a single-ticket jackpot format to the pick six. The bet, which was offered last fall, dedicates a portion of the net pool to one winning ticket. A pick six with a similar format was offered at Santa Anita earlier this year.

This summer, purse levels are the same as at the end of the 2016 summer season. The track has reduced stable capacity to approximately 1,900 from 2,175 last year to ease congestion during training. As a result, offtrack stabling is expected to be at capacity, with 850 horses based at Los Alamitos and about 480 at the San Luis Rey Downs training center in nearby Bonsall, officials said.

Banking has been increased on the turns of Del Mar’s dirt main track, making it similar to the track at Santa Anita. The surface is now under the direction of Dennis Moore, who is a consultant on racetrack surfaces at Los Alamitos and Santa Anita.

“We spent $250,000 fixing the racetrack and increasing the banking,” Harper said. “We kind of smoothed out the track. I think it’s in good shape.”

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