“Eighty-four days till Del Mar.”
Those were the sentiments of Bill Spawr, prominent Southern California horse trainer, about the seaside track, made on April 21, the second day of Hollywood Park’s meet.
No wonder Spawr couldn’t wait. He won three races here on opening day.
Horsemen can’t be blamed for counting the days until Del Mar. The seven-week season at the track where the Turf Meets the Surf is a travel agent’s dream. Not only does it offer racing six days a week, but just a few furlongs from the track are white beaches and blue skies right out of Bo Derek’s “10,” watering holes that serve up an abundance of thirst-quenching libations, and seafood so fresh it’s barely stopped flipping when it hits your table.
“Everybody loves Del Mar. It’s a vacation,” says Mike Mitchell, 53, the track’s third-leading trainer all-time with more than 300 victories. “One owner I had last year wanted to run a horse on opening day, just for an excuse to be there.”
Pound-for-pound, the overnight purse structure at Del Mar is enticing.
“When you talk about claiming races and allowance races, the pots are great,” Mitchell said. “But the money is just part of the lure.”
Horsemen savor the atmosphere at Del Mar so, they go to extremes to race there. Just before the Hollywood meet ends and Del Mar opens, there is a claiming frenzy.
“It’s crazy,” Mitchell says of the claiming activity that centers on the Del Mar meet. “The number of people who come out of the woodwork to own horses just for Del Mar is wild. Then you never hear from them again. But once a year, just before Del Mar, they want to be involved.”
“We had 10 claims on opening day,” said Del Mar paymaster Bridget Crawford, whose offices process such transactions. “There were two in the first race, four in the fourth and four in the ninth.” And they were the official claims. The 10 didn’t count the number of claims that were actually put in, just the final tally after the “shake,” a procedure whereby numbered pills are drawn randomly, like in billiards. The pill with the number matching the trainer’s name determines who gets the horse.
“In 1999, we had 228 claims,” Crawford said. “Last year, we had 300. The number keeps going up, and if this year is any indication’s, it’s going to be worse.” There were nine claims on Thursday, four on Friday and six on Saturday. At that rate, there would be about 312 claims this meet.
“Everybody wants to have a horse to run at Del Mar,” says trainer Rafael Becerra, former longtime assistant to the retired Gary Jones. “Even if you were to run a horse for a $100,000 claiming price at Del Mar, if someone likes the horse, he’ll claim it, just to have a horse that can run back in two weeks. I came to Hollywood Park near the end of the meet and I wasn’t even running a horse that day.”
He was looking to claim one to run at Del Mar, where racing is a 43-day vacation.
“They don’t open early enough,” Mitchell lamented, “and they don’t close late enough.”
THE HOMESTRETCH: Mitchell, one of the most successful claiming trainers in the Golden State, is attempting to upgrade his stock. “I bought some two year olds in training in Florida and at Barretts,” Mitchell said, “and I hope to start with them. It’s very hard to claim right now anyway, so I bought the young horses to start on a different path. Even if you put in a claim for a horse these days, you still have to win the shake. And at Del Mar, it’s even worse.” . . . Becerra hopes to celebrate his 47th birthday on Friday, July 27, with a victory by Lester’s Boy in the $75,000 Wickerr Handicap at one mile on the grass, unless he can find a softer spot for the veteran gray. “When I ran him at Hollywood last time, he wasn’t right,” Becerra said. “He broke slow and that’s not his style.” Becerra has a two year old worth watching, a son of Cutlass Reality named Vixen Storm. “He’s been working real good,” Becerra said . . . Hornblower Jay Cohen, whose popularity with California racegoers ranks at landslide level, is off to Japan where he will represent Santa Anita at Ohi race track, Santa Anita’s sister track “climb” (make that hike) Mt. Fuji while in the Orient, then return to the U.S. Aug. 1 when he will hike Mt. Whitney. The Audubon, N.H. native will be guest hornblower at Ruidoso Downs on Labor Day . . . Former Bob Baffert assistant continues to have difficulty beating his mentor. The Godolphin entry of Dubai Edition and Dubai Touch finished fifth and ninth as the 9-10 favorites behind Baffert’s runaway winner, Saturday Hero, in Del Mar’s sixth race on Saturday. Harty’s hardships against Baffert began last year, when Street Cry failed twice as a 2-year-old against Flame Thrower.