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DEL MAR, Calif. — The temperature on my iPhone screen read “77 degrees.”

The women were looking gorgeous, all dressed up, many adorning hats. The scratchy song by Bing Crosby blared out over the loudspeakers. The smell of kettle corn was in the air.

It looked and felt like Del Mar.

Sort of.

The venerable San Diego seaside race track kicked off its fall meet last Friday. But it must have been a secret. Only 5,154 showed up.

Those that stuck around to the end had a chance to make some money as Escape Clause paid $39.40 for winning the featured Kathryn Crosby Stakes after Excellent Sunset was disqualified for interference. In the eighth and final race, Queen Carmelita won and paid $32.40. If you had selected the 9-4 late Daily Double, you pocketed $1,018.40. Not bad for two bucks.

This is the fifth straight year Del Mar has run a fall racing meet. The Breeders’ Cup last year notwithstanding, you’re not going to see the same numbers you see in the summer. So to compare the two meets doesn’t make sense.

I remember Del Mar chief Joe Harper telling me five years ago he didn’t have great expectations for big numbers for the first fall meet. They were going to host the 2017 Breeders’ Cup and running in November was a good way to get it into people’s minds there’s live horse racing at this time of the year.

“It’s not the summer meet,” said Josh Rubinstein, Del Mar’s president and chief operating officer. “The marketing team tears their hair out when they see the numbers.

“But the fall meet is all about the racing. It’s geared toward the locals. We’re seeing more high-quality trainers running their horses. We did $11 million a day last year (in pari-mutuel handle). We averaged 8.5 entries per race. We’re putting out a competitive product.”

Del Mar also filled the void with the closing of Hollywood Park. Santa Anita can’t run all the time, and by taking 16 days of racing, Del Mar gives Santa Anita a much-needed break as it gets things in order for its winter-spring meet.

For those out-of-town trainers who are willing to take a shot and run their horses here, there are potential rewards.

Don Schnell is a veteran horseman from Canada who has had success at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg and Century Downs in Calgary. He brought Escape Clause to Del Mar to run her on the turf and though she won by DQ, she still picked up the winner’s share of the $75,000 purse. Maybe Schnell doesn’t make that move in the summer and keeps Escape Clause in Canada. 

They will have the Breeders’ Cup again at Del Mar in 2021. So for better or worse, the fall meet isn’t going away anytime soon. And if you always wanted to visit and you decided not to, now is a good time to reconsider.

You can get reduced admission and seating by joining Del Mar’s “Diamond Club” players’ club. There’s no charge and you can do it on the track’s mobile app.

There aren’t long lines to bet or get a beer. You can find a nice viewing perch in the paddock to watch the horses being saddled. The friendly vibe from those who work at the track is still there. You’ll be made to feel comfortable.

“We’re trying to use Saturday as our big promotional day,” Rubinstein said. “We had a concert (reggae group Pepper) Saturday and we’ve got a country concert on the 24th. We’re reaching out to the college kids to get them out to the track.

“We don’t get as many tourists from LA and other places but having the Breeders’ Cup here last year showed what we’re all about and that we have a fall horse meet. It was great exposure for us.”

Saturday felt more like Del Mar. The crowd were substantially bigger from the day before, 8,767 were at the track, and the racing card was fuller. The weather cooperated and it was an enjoyable day.

I’m guessing Bing Crosby would have been pleased.

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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