Breath of fresh air at Del Mar around the corner

Jun 28, 2005 2:40 AM

Training horses is like bad television. There’s no end to it.

Except when there’s racing at Del Mar. Seven weeks of big purses, blue skies, sunshine, cool breezes and beautiful people offer a welcome respite, sort of like Neverland without the sleepovers.

Del Mar presents its 66th season of racing on July 20, running 43 days through Sept. 7. Horsemen can’t wait.

"It’s something you look forward to every year," said Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. "After racing in the city all year, this gives you a chance to enjoy the summer at the beach and see the girls in their bikinis and stuff like that. It really picks your head up."

The sea air also has its affects on horses, favorably and adverse.

"I’d say most horses like it," Mandella said, "but every year there are a couple that don’t. I don’t think it has to do with the humidity and things like that. I think it’s because we’re stabled right on the oval (track) and the horses are close enough to hear the races and I think it makes them a little nervous. That gets to some of them, but most of them are all right. But there always seems to be one that gets shook by all the excitement. In general, though, horses like it. If you can’t do well at Del Mar, you can’t do well anywhere."

Fellow trainer Steve Knapp, who has become a significant presence on the Southern California circuit the last few years, expects a better meet at Del Mar than he had last season.

"The track surface is definitely something you have to deal with," the 48-year-old former uniform company owner said. "Last year I lost six horses in about the first two weeks. I didn’t win many races after that because I decided to save most of them for Santa Anita. We won a few races at Del Mar but not as many as I would have liked.

"But we have a lot more horses this year so I hope to go down there and have a real good meet. The atmosphere there is fine. It’s actually better at Del Mar for us than it is coming from Santa Anita to Hollywood Park, because at Hollywood we don’t get to school our horses much, since our base is at Santa Anita. At Del Mar we get a better chance to school all our horses and that helps."

Mike Mitchell views Del Mar as the best of both worlds. The 57-year-old Bakersfield native won training titles there four times.

"I’ll ship about half my stable there nine days before the meet starts," Mitchell said, "and I’ll really enjoy those days before the opening. That time is really like a vacation. The meet is six days a week which is harder, but I don’t have to drive to the track once I’m there and driving from my home to Hollywood and Santa Anita are what’s killing me."

Mitchell has basked in the seaside atmosphere for years.

"My dad (Earl, a former trainer), Gene Cleveland, Henry Moreno and a bunch of guys all used to play baseball down there on a field near the training track," Mitchell said. "My kids (daughters Shey and McCall) grew up with Del Mar and the beach so for us we always look at it as a vacation."

Still, it helps if you win some races on a track that has been maligned in the past for any number of reasons, including over usage.

"Years ago it would take a while for the track to tighten up," Mitchell said. "Now, (track superintendent Steve) Wood works on the track before the fair down there ends. Once the fair’s over they just have to renovate it a little bit. It’s much tighter than it used to be 10 years ago."

Mitchell is optimistic he’ll maintain his high place in the trainers’ standings, but he doesn’t expect to win Grade I stakes like he did last year with the retired Kela.

"I don’t have any Kelas or Star Over The Bays (who was euthanized in the Orient recently after suffering an injury during a race) but I’ve got a pretty good stable with a bunch of young horses," Mitchell said. "I’m not looking at stakes races for them, just maiden races. But I’m always out to make a good claim. Kela was super. He and Star Over The Bay both helped me have a terrific year in 2004. It was the biggest year I’ve ever had. I like my barn right now, too, and I think I’ll have a good meet, but I won’t be in those Grade I’s."

The homestretch

Mandella says Santa Anita Handicap winner Rock Hard Ten is back jogging.

"I’ve started and stopped on him twice now because he stiffened up on me," Mandella said. "He doesn’t have any serious problems, just some aches and pains to work out. He looks terrific but I won’t push him at all. He may not run until the Goodwood at Oak Tree as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup (Classic at Belmont Park on Oct. 29)."

”¡ Bill Fogg, manager of the Flamingo Laughlin race and sports book, is delighted with the recent upgrade at the resort hard by the Colorado River. One thing you can’t beat on those 112-degree days in the desert is the frosty air conditioning in the casinos.

”¡ Wally Dollase, who recently shifted his operation to Kentucky, will return to Southern California on Nov. 1, following the Breeders’ Cup. His multiple stakes-winning turf marathoner, Meteor Storm, lost two front shoes finishing seventh in the June 11 Manhattan Handicap and is pointing to the Bowling Green Handicap on July 16 and the Sword Dancer on Aug. 13, with the Breeders’ Cup Turf as his ultimate goal.

"That’s the first time I’ve ever had a horse lose two shoes in a race," said the 68-year-old Dollase, who has been training nearly four decades.

”¡ This thought after a recent visit to the Grand Canyon: It’s nature’s most creative masterpiece, but lucky it’s in Arizona. If it was in California, it would have been bulldozed for real estate development.

”¡ Including stops at Needles and Barstow, it took just under seven hours to drive 452 miles from Williams, Arizona, located on historic Route 66, to my home in the San Fernando Valley, or about the same time it takes to drive 31 miles to my home from Hollywood Park on the San Diego Freeway.