Safety first, not fast times, major priority at Del Mar

August 28, 2007 3:16 AM
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The controversy over Del Mar’s new synthetic main track surface, Polytrack, centers on running time. Critics say horses move over it slower than the hands on a traffic school clock. Proponents point out the bottom line is safety for horse and rider, and that time only counts in prison.

The issue was brought into dramatic focus on Aug. 19 in Del Mar’s marquee race, the $1 million Pacific Classic, when 23/1 outsider Student Council dawdled home first in 2:07.29 for the mile and a quarter, more than eight — count’em — eight seconds off Candy Ride’s stakes record of 1:59.11 set in 2003.

The fractional times were 24.95, 49.75, 1:14.81 and 1:40.65 for the mile, embarrassingly slow for any track, let alone one in Southern California, where speed is king, or at least was, before synthetic surfaces were introduced at Hollywood Park, Del Mar and next up, Santa Anita, in accordance with a California Horse Racing Board mandate.

But horsemen and fans would do well to get used to those snail-like scenarios, because synthetic surfaces, at a cost of some $8 million each, are here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future. Take it from Del Mar President Joe Harper, who endured hit after hit on Del Mar’s traditional dirt track in recent years with a plethora of fatal thoroughbred breakdowns. Last year, according to track officials, there were 14 on the dirt track. Through 30 days of the 43-day meet this year, there was only one on Polytrack.

"As far as I’m concerned, we have to slow it down," said Harper, who has been with Del Mar since 1977 and who also serves as CEO, general manager and director. "Speed kills horses; we’ve seen it. It doesn’t do anything for their longevity. Horses are being bred now that don’t last a long time. When was the last Triple Crown winner? (Affirmed, in 1978).

"Everything is about safety. Some of the bigger breeders I’ve spoken with in Kentucky are ready to start going in another direction, and I agree with that. Look at the Indianapolis 500. They slowed the race down and saved lives. We’re doing the same thing at Del Mar. The safety of the horse is the No. 1 reason we installed Polytrack, and it’s certainly proven to provide that safety, so we’re really happy with it.

"The interesting thing is, along with greater safety, we’re seeing an increase in handle, so bettors are not backing away from the new surface or the slower times, and the field sizes have increased, too. Given all that, I don’t quite understand the controversy.

"Critics say you’ve got to do this or that to the track to have quicker times, but all I can point to is the record and say, ”˜why?’"

Meanwhile, success at Del Mar continues to be as commonplace as girls wearing tattoos above their butt cracks.

The seaside track is enjoying another banner season, in this, its 68th campaign, and has developed what might be called a cult following. What’s not to enjoy with Chamber of Commerce weather, a carefree atmosphere, ambiance to die for and an attractive product?

"We’re in a good spot, no doubt," Harper said. "It’s location, location, location, and certainly a nice, short summer meet like we have and Saratoga has provides the ingredients that make people want to come to the races.

We’re marketed a bit differently. We don’t market our product as much as we market our venue, so the concerts, the crazy contests and all that go with it make Del Mar a fun place to be."

And you know what they say: time flies when you’re having fun.

The homestretch

”¡ Pay attention to any horse Aaron Gryder rides at Fairplex Park this meet. Agent Tony Matos plans to have him on prime stakes mounts.

”¡ Michael Vick’s life-altering decision to participate in barbaric acts with canines resulted in a classic case of Dog Bites Man.