Del Mar track draws fire

Jul 10, 2001 4:29 AM

David Hofmans says Del Mar’s racing surface will never play fair as long as the State of California holds an annual fair on the track just days before the thoroughbred meet starts.

“I was down there July 2 and it was a mess,” the 58-year-old trainer said. “They had 500 cars parked on the turn, they had grandstands in the stretch. No wonder horses break down, and when they do, they’re like, ”˜We don’t know what happened.’”

The Del Mar Fair is operated by the state on the 350-acre grounds known as the Del Mar Fairgrounds, where the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is a tenant. The Fair ended July 4, leaving Del Mar two weeks to fully prepare its racing surface for the 43-day meet that runs July 18 through Sept. 5.

“They had all their equipment on the track, so they’re only going to have a few days to get it ready,” said Hofmans, a Los Angeles native who has been training for more than 25 years. His most notable victories came in the 1997 Belmont Stakes with Touch Gold and the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Alphabet Soup.

Hofmans is frustrated by the Golden State’s priorities when it comes to racing at Del Mar.

“Until California decides it’s going to have serious horse racing there, what are you going to do?,” he said. “The horsemen can’t plan. You never know how the track is going to play. That’s why nobody (from out of town) comes to run in handicap races in California anymore. They don’t know what the (bleep) they’re going to run into.

“Every year this goes on, so we don’t know what to expect when we go down there,” Hofmans continued. “The horsemen are constantly looking to do something about it, but nobody hears us. Nobody cares. Because you don’t know what to expect with the Del Mar surface, it’s best to get there early to work your horses. They have no training track to use.”

Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s director of racing, anticipates the track being as good as ever. Readying the racing surface while the Fair hawks its wares is just business as usual.

“The trainers are entitled to their opinion, but we have this track race-ready every year,” Robbins said. “It’s no surprise that we have the Fair. We have it every year and we have the surface race-ready by June 1, the date the Fair starts to bring in its stuff. That limits our ability to continue to work the track, but this year was no different than the past.

“We sealed the track, and prior to the Fair opening on June 15, we had a crew working it from midnight to 8 a.m., watering and harrowing and doing everything it could around the Fair activities,” Robbins continued. “I have ongoing meetings with (track superintendent) Steve Wood and he is confident it will be in good shape. We had the fewest complaints ever last year from horsemen, and I’ve been at Del Mar for 30 years. It was a very good summer and, believe me, with the new equipment Steve employed last year, and with the organic addition we put into the track last year, he is very happy with it. He says we’re right on schedule.”

Criticism from other trainers was less harsh.

“I don’t think any more horses are getting hurt at Del Mar than at Hollywood Park or Fairplex,” said Barry Abrams. “For the amount of days they race, compared to Santa Anita or Hollywood, Del Mar doesn’t have any more breakdowns, except for that one year (1998). Then they found out why and redid the track.”

Trainer Jim Cassidy says it’s imperative track surfaces be meticulously maintained.

“About three years ago, I went to Del Mar to talk to (former racing secretary Tom) Knust about stalls. It was two days before the meet started, and they still had grandstands and all kinds of crap on the race track,” Cassidy recalled. “How they can get it ready that quick, I don’t know, but apparently they did. A racing surface can’t be treated haphazardly. Years ago (former Hollywood Park head) Marge Everett ran standardbreds at Hollywood and they had the surface like a pancake for those races. It became dangerous when the thoroughbreds ran, because dirt was put on top of the surface that had been used for the standardbreds.”

“Everybody kind of accepts Del Mar because that’s the way it’s always been,” says trainer Ron Ellis. “I don’t think the current arrangement is in everyone’s best interest, but everybody knows that. I didn’t go to Del Mar last year, but from what I hear, the track was a lot better than it’s ever been.”

So what should bettors expect before they invest their hard-earned money?

“This meet, I think the track will be more like Santa Anita’s,” Ellis said. “You might see horses that didn’t like Hollywood revert to their Santa Anita form, because Hollywood and Del Mar are totally different. Santa Anita and Del Mar have the same track superintendent (Wood), so they’re pretty similar. Hollywood is off by itself. It’s so sandy. That doesn’t make it a bad track, but it’s so different, horses handle it in different ways. A horse that runs well at Hollywood might not at Del Mar.

“Bettors should take a wait-and-see approach if they want to be really safe, but I wouldn’t weigh too heavily on a horse’s Hollywood form, because most of them won’t run exactly the same at Del Mar as they did at Hollywood.”

THE HOMESTRETCH: Hofmans says Louisiana Derby winner Millennium Wind is preparing for an autumn return. “We’re working on his foot right now,” the trainer said. “He’s had a little problem with a quarter crack, but we’ve got a shoe on him now and we’ll probably start training him soon and point him to something in the fall.”

. . . Ellis is a man to watch at Del Mar. “I’m going to be really aggressive there,” he said. “We’re going to run horses where they belong and get rid of a bunch of maidens and run them a little cheaper than they’ve been. I’ve had too many horses finishing third and fourth.”

. . . Swept Overboard, who figures to be the third choice behind Kona Gold and Caller One in the July 22 Bing Crosby Handicap, is prime to upset the two favorites in the six-furlong race. Bet on the Gray Ghost in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint future book before the Bing Crosby, because his price will shrink after that race.

. . . Eoin Harty will take 36 Godolphin horses””all two year olds””to Del Mar. The former Bob Baffert assistant is preparing some of them for next year’s Triple Crown. One of Harty’s best prospects is Sleeping Wagon, an impressive maiden winner who makes his next start in Sunday’s Hollywood Juvenile. “I’ve got some other promising youngsters that haven’t started,” Harty said. “Last year we didn’t have that many, yet we came up with Street Cry, who was a legitimate Kentucky Derby horse but he got hurt Derby week. The program is going in the right direction.”