Joe Harper was trying to be funny, I think.
The Chief Executive Officer at Del Mar said he won’t be able to exhale until Labor Day. And given the state of horse racing in California, who can blame him for needing to hold his breath every day?
The entire racing industry is paying for the sins of Santa Anita. When 30 horses die at a meet, you take notice.
“California racing is in a crisis,” Harper said last week from his second-floor office which overlooks the paddock. “I got calls from Sen. (Dianne) Feinstein, from the Governor (Gavin Newsom) saying ‘What are you doing?’”
Del Mar may not be able to save racing from itself. But it is trying to help change the culture on the backstretch and make the race day experience as good and as safe as possible.
There are added veterinarians. There’s a committee to determine whether a horse is fit to race. The track may not be as fast as in years past, but it is safer.
As of last Sunday, not one horse had to be euthanized from running in a race. Three horses have been put down after two separate incidents in the morning when the horses train. But for the most part, Del Mar has run a safe meet.
That change in culture has come at a price. According to Harper, the debacle that was Santa Anita cost Del Mar approximately $4 million to implement the changes it made.
“I’m not complaining,” he said. “But that’s what it took (to change the culture). The horsemen and the owners understand what we’re trying to do, especially the ones who went through what they did at Santa Anita, and we’ve got to make sure the horses that aren’t sound aren’t running in the afternoon.”
Yes, attendance and handle are down, no doubt a boomerang effect from Santa Anita. But the track had a good weekend and has helped close the gap. Attendance is down 5 percent from this time in 2018 and the betting handle is down 14 percent. But Del Mar is running fewer races than a year ago and the fields are smaller than last year.
Still, you go to the track and you see those that are there are enjoying themselves. Those who come to the popular post-race concert series may not bet much, but they’re buying beers and wine and food items. All contribute to the business’ health.
Del Mar could have raced four days a week. But Harper said they opted not to.
“We needed to stay open five days a week,” he said. “We have a lot of promotions that aren’t necessarily tied to racing but help bring a lot of people to the track.”
Del Mar also told the Breeders’ Cup “No thanks” when it was looking for a possible alternative location to Santa Anita for this November. Del Mar hosted the Breeders’ Cup in 2017 and will play host to the event again in 2021. As of now, the Breeders’ Cup will remain at Santa Anita.
“There simply wasn’t enough time,” Harper said. “We learned a lot from when we hosted it (in 2017) and we’re excited about 2021. Our staff put in a lot of work. But in the end, it was very rewarding.”
This year’s Del Mar meet has its big events still to come. The Pacific Classic, a Grade I event worth $1 million, will run on Aug. 17 as part of a day that will have six grades stakes races with a combined $1.75 million in purses. There’s the closing weekend of Aug. 31-Sept. 2 which includes the Grade I Del Mar Debutante and Grade I Del Mar Futurity. Perhaps the track will close the gap in the deficit from a year ago when the dust settles.
“We knew the story going in was ‘Del Mar is opening — will the deaths continue?’” Harper said. “But we’re not Santa Anita. We’re one of the safest racetracks in America.
“The truth is, it’s an industry that’s in big trouble. We’ve managed to stay off the grid for a while. But Santa Anita was the straw that broke the back. Now we’re trying to get through this and turn the corner and it’s going to be a challenge.”
So Joe Harper will hold his breath, hope all the horses come back safe every day, that people renew their confidence in his product and Del Mar can get through the meet so come Sept. 2 as the sun sets, he can exhale.
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