The opening of Del Mar on Wednesday starts of the second half of the horse racing year, and with it comes a welcome chance to hit the refresh button after a chaotic first half of 2019.
After seeing a Kentucky Derby winner (Maximum Security) get disqualified for a racing infraction for the first time ever, watching Santa Anita being forced to shut down for several weeks after a rash of equine fatalities, and witnessing the pool of available racehorses in California dwindle, it is time to break out the flip flops, unpack the Hawaiian shirts, and make going to the track more about seeing great racing and less about politicking.
Del Mar plans to try to offset the horse population deficit by running fewer races. Look for 40 races during the five-day race week this year, including seven-race cards on Thursdays, compared to 43 races per week in 2018.
The popular “Ship and Win” purse bonuses are back and improved. Available to horses who last raced outside the state of California and who have not raced in the state in the last 12 months, the bonus has been increased to 40 percent across the board, compared with a 30 percent bonus in 2018 to the winner only.
The bonus is for their first start at Del Mar only, so expect several shippers to be very live right off the bat.
There is also a new bonus program that involves the two-year-olds. Juvenile Maiden Special Weight races on dirt, both sprinting and routing, will offer a 25 percent bonus across the board to stables with fewer than 50 horses stabled in Southern California. I will call this the “Reward for facing the Bob Baffert juggernaut bonus.”
The highlight of the meeting, as usual, will be the $1 million Pacific Classic run on August 17. Gift Box, trained by John Sadler, won the Santa Anita Handicap at the same 10-furlong distance and is pointing to the Pacific Classic. Stablemate Catalina Cruiser returned from a layoff to win the Grade II True North at Belmont Park. He will stretch back out in the Grade II San Diego Handicap opening weekend and may be Pacific Classic material as well.
Juveniles are always a key component to Del Mar. You never know when Bob Baffert may unveil an American Pharoah or even a Game Winner. Both were among the 14 winners of the Grade I Del Mar Futurity trained by Baffert. That race annually points out major contenders to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and will be run on Labor Day.
Trainers to watch
Del Mar’s leading trainer for both the 2018 summer and fall meets was local Encinitas resident Peter Miller. Due in part to the shut down in March of Santa Anita, Miller split up his stable and set up a string of horses in Kentucky. Approximately 33 percent of the 90 horses he currently has in training are not in California, so he may not be quite as busy as he was last summer.
Miller comes into Del Mar on a hot streak though, as he won the recent Los Alamitos training title and won several races the final two weeks of the Churchill Downs meet. Expect him to continue his winning ways, especially for J. Kirk and Judy Robison, the New Mexico-based owners who point horses specifically to Del Mar each summer.
Baffert won 14 races last summer, and 11 of those wins came with two-year-olds. All of his juvenile winners, including Del Mar Futurity winner Game Winner, won their career debuts. Don’t expect to get rich, as the Baffert youngsters get bet heavily, but sometimes it can be futile to bet against them, too.
Sadler won eight Stakes races at Del Mar in 2018, and with Gift Box, Catalina Cruiser, Ollie’s Candy, and several promising juveniles in the barn, Sadler figures to make his mark in the Stakes ranks again this year.
As for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, he was not given any stalls at Del Mar and will not be allowed to run horses there under his name.
Del Mar, much like the New York Racing Association, has been very quiet as to the reasons for this decision. Hollendorfer has no current rulings against him and is in good standing as both a trainer and an owner.
Dan Ward, the longtime assistant to Hollendorfer, completed paperwork last week and acquired the necessary insurance to start his own stable. Ward applied for and was given stalls at Del Mar.
More Better, previously trained by Hollendorfer, is entered in the opening day Oceanside Stakes. Sneaking Out, who was also trained by Hollendorfer and who was scratched off the program from the Melair Stakes at Santa Anita on June 23 (all of Hollendorfer’s horses were scratched closing weekend at Santa Anita after a fatal injury to one of the barn’s horses during training on June 22), looks like a prohibitive favorite in Thursday’s Fleet Treat Stakes.
The emphasis will be on turf racing, and the Del Mar turf course is more kind to horses that rally from off the pace than the Santa Anita turf.
From Daily Racing Form’s Del Mar Players Guide (a terrific tool for all horseplayers), 31 percent of the one mile turf winners at Santa Anita from March 29 – June 23 were won by the pacesetter. Last summer at Del Mar, only 11 percent of the one mile turf winners were pacesetters. In other words, closers who may have been compromised during the second half of the Santa Anita meet on the turf could wake up at a price at Del Mar.
With the closure of the hillside portion of the Santa Anita turf course in March, Santa Anita introduced a steady diet of five-furlong turf sprints for the first time. While the distance is similar to the turf sprints run at Del Mar, note that those Santa Anita turf sprints were dominated by early speed (66 percent of those turf sprint winners were first or second after the first quarter mile).
At Del Mar, the turf sprints are fair to all running styles. Last summer, only 37 percent of the turf sprint winners were first or second after the opening quarter mile. Closers won 34 percent of the turf sprints at Del Mar.
First post time on Wednesday is 2 p.m. Get to the track or your race book a little early so you can hear Bing Crosby sing “Where the Turf Meets the Surf” as the horses come on the track for the opener. That alone could help racing get back towards the perceived “normal.” I am looking forward to it.
Lindo Report Play for Gaming Today: Del Mar Wednesday, race 9 – King Jack (No. 4): This colt won his debut back on June 1 like a horse with a bright future. He was trained by Jerry Hollendorfer for that debut, but could give Dan Ward his first winner as a trainer at Del Mar.
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