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Hovdey: Rubinstein ushers in new wave at Del Mar

Saturday, August 4th, 2018

Only a fool would walk around believing that all is bright and rosy these days in the world of Thoroughbred racing. The darkest purveyors of critical commentary insist the game is dead and doesn’t know it. Those clinging to a dash of hope still think some lesser version of the game can be saved. Somewhere in between live the people who have decided to cast their lot with a business that more often than not resembles a steam train riding a rickety track through beautiful countryside.

A lot of them are young, or at least youngish, realistic to the challenges but blessed with the ability to tune out their gloomy elders. As bona-fide players in a modern world, they find themselves following in traditions that are no longer honored, and yet convinced they can make it on their own, fresh terms.

So go ahead, just try and discourage trainers like Brad Cox, Simon Callaghan, Brittany Trimble, Jenn Patterson, and Dan Blacker, or jockeys like Drayden Van Dyke, Tyler Gaffalione, or anyone named Ortiz. They’ll all be old and bitter and 50 or 60 someday, but right now they’re betting that horse racing offers a life worth living, no matter what anyone says.

Josh Rubinstein is one of those new generation of racetrack executives who will help shape the world in which the onrushing talent will either thrive, or flounder. Though young for a racetrack president, at 48 Rubinstein is no kid. There are those who will swear he has worked at Del Mar forever, or at least since the mid-1990s, not too long after he emerged from San Diego State University a fully formed racing fan with the idea he could leverage a telecommunications/marketing degree into some kind of dream job at the track.

Mission accomplished.

Rubinstein’s ascension earlier this year to the office of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president was added to his role as chief operating officer. On a recent afternoon at the track, he was asked how things had changed with the new title.

“You mean besides a new business card?” he said with a grin.

With CEO and former president Joe Harper at the head of the table, the DMTC operates with a management committee that includes Rubinstein, racing chief Tom Robbins, chief financial officer Michael Ernst, and marketing VP Craig Dado.

“I like managing like that,” Rubinstein said. “Not all businesses have such a depth of experience in all departments. There isn’t a single big decision or even a mid-level decision where we’re not getting together as a group to talk about the ramifications from all sides. Maybe it’s not for everybody, but it works for us.”

Rubinstein has felt right at home at Del Mar since the days he jumped the grandstand gate with his high school pals.

“We would kind of sneak our way in, which you could do if you were resourceful,” he said. “It wasn’t that hard to do in the old grandstand. I like to think it’s little tougher now. But from the first day I was here I loved it – the atmosphere, the characters, the pageantry.”

Rubinstein worked his way through several full-time frontside departments along the way, while always fending off the industry ribbing about what the Del Mar brass did for the other 45 weeks a year. Now, with the addition of a fall meet, the off season is 42 weeks.

“We do have the luxury of time to try and get things right, so we can take advantage of our location and our facility,” Rubinstein said. “But you still need to execute when the time comes. And we also share the calendar with about 300 non-racing events at the fairgrounds.”

True enough, as lessee the DMTC must answer to the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which manages the land owned by the State of California. Besides the 10 weeks of racing, the site hosts the increasingly popular Kaboo rock concert, trade shows that offer everything from guns to roses, and holiday conversions to theme parks.

“The fall meet will never be the summer, but it’s kind of getting its own vibe,” Rubinstein said. “And I think it’s a benefit that the racing surfaces aren’t dormant now for 45 weeks, and the local community is able to be involved more than just those summer dates.”

It is those autumn dates, however, that are coveted by the Stronach Group to be run someday at Santa Anita. Del Mar initially stepped in to provide continuity after the closure of Hollywood Park.

“California needs Santa Anita to be successful, and Del Mar needs Santa Anita to be successful,” Rubinstein said. “I understand that Santa Anita is a massive facility, that they have bills to pay, and they want to generate money every day they can. But I also think the business needs variety, and a healthy circuit.”

Once Rubinstein survived the bump of a tough labor negotiation with mutuel clerks as the current season approached, Del Mar has been showing positive business trends. He knows, though, that no two days in racetrack management are ever be the same, which makes Joe Harper, a Del Mar institution since 1977, his greatest resource.

“It’s great to be able to walk into the next office and ask a guy like Joe about something, with all his knowledge and experience,” Rubinstein said. “At the same time, now if someone comes to Joe with a problem he just says, ‘Go see the guy down the hall.’ ”

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Photo Credits:   Vassar Photography (Northern CA)  |  Benoit Photo (Southern CA)  |  Michael J. Marten (Southern CA)

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