Horsemen are anxious for Del Mar to start. They’re about as antsy as Nomar Garciaparra in the batting box, only without his obsessive-compulsive tics and gestures.
The track where the Turf Meets the Surf opens its 67th season on July 19 and runs 43 days through Sept. 6. Barring the unforeseen, this will mark the last season for Del Mar’s overused and abused main track. The California Horse Racing Board has mandated that Southern California’s major tracks install synthetic surfaces by the end of next year, or it will not allot them racing dates.
Polytrack can’t come soon enough for Bill Spawr, who annually counts the days until the Hollywood Park meet ends and Del Mar begins.
"I’m anxious to get down there, but I don’t have a lot of horses," the 66-year-old trainer said. "Too many have been injured. I haven’t raced over Polytrack but I’m for it, because it can’t be any worse than what we have. It’s got to be better. Horses are just suffering too many injuries. It’s getting ridiculous. Just talk to any trainer."
Whether injuries are being caused by unsafe racing surfaces or too much racing is open to discussion. "I don’t know the cause," Spawr said. "I just know the results. But my owners and I are looking forward to Del Mar. They’re beach people."
Spawr said he has some 2-year-olds "that look very, very nice," for owners Sid and Jenny Craig, and that reigning sprint king Bordonaro is on schedule for the Grade I Bing Crosby Handicap on July 30. "He’s doing really well," Spawr said. "He’s stronger than ever."
No trainer gets to his barn earlier than Spawr, who likes to take advantage of a virgin surface.
"We get on it as soon as they open," said Spawr, who’s at the track by 3:30 every morning. "I usually leave from training by 8:30 or 9 o’clock, but at Del Mar it will be later because there’s more business to take care of. When you get your horses on the track early, there’s less traffic. It’s like a pool table. It’s really nice."
Spawr points to uneven surfaces, too much heavy equipment going over the track and "sealing" it prior to wet weather as major reasons for horses’ injuries.
Like Spawr, Craig Lewis has been racing at Del Mar for years, but has not experienced Polytrack first hand. "I just like safety," the 59-year-old trainer said. "I’m not smart enough to know what that is, but I want the safest surface. Synthetic surfaces are all really hearsay to me, so I couldn’t give you an intelligent comment."
Toby Turrell, a horse owner and longtime private clocker who publishes "Winners Card," the most profitable tout sheet on the market, plans to punch his stop watch at Del Mar this meet. He usually is headquartered at Santa Anita, but that facility, in an effort to allay disquietude about the main track’s safety, is expected to close for some two weeks while the base of the entire track is inspected starting July 15.
"I’ll operate at Del Mar earlier than normal, if indeed Santa Anita follows through with its announced closing," said Turrell, who was restrained in his criticism of Del Mar’s main track. "I haven’t had enough personal experience with my own horses to comment on it," he said. "My horses did fine on it and I haven’t had any issues with it, but I hope the turf is softer this year.
"As far as clocking the horses, Del Mar’s surface was fine. But I expect handicappers will notice a difference from Hollywood to Del Mar, because Hollywood’s surface is being changed as we speak. It was changed radically on June 12 and you see how slow the times are today (June 14). Believe it or not, for the first time this summer, Del Mar now might wind up being the fastest track of the three.
"But bettors will still have to notice handicapping trends the old fashion way; wait for that day’s races and see if there are any variables. That track can change day to day, and it might have something to do with the tides. I do have a tide log, but I don’t know what it means."
Turrell offered one important aspect for bettors to consider. "As a clocker studying every Del Mar angle, the strongest one is to bet a horse back that has had a sharp race over the track. It usually runs another sharp race nine times out of 10."
”¡ With Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro hors de combat and Preakness winner Bernardini abstaining, ABC’s telecast of the Belmont Stakes suffered a ratings decrease of 22 percent from last year. In short, they stunk. Call it the Smellmont.
”¡ Promising 3-year-old Cindago, a $900,000 son of Indian Charlie who was sidelined with a hairline fracture in his right knee since January, is back in training and expected to return at Del Mar, trainer John Sadler said.
”¡ If my column seems a bit erratic this week, forgive me. I wrote it while watching the World Cup and nodded off.
”¡. I don’t know about you, but my TV mornings aren’t the same without seeing Katie Couric’s radiant smile and her dazzling display of gums.
”¡ I see where the WNBA announced its All-Decade team. Did I tell you that last week I was named to journalism’s All-24 Hour Team?
”¡ In Yiddish, there’s a word for Ben Roethlisberger, who chose to jeopardize his life and his multi-million dollar career by riding a motorcycle without a helmet: schmuck.