It’s been 10 years since Bob Hess Jr. won the second of back-to-back training titles at Del Mar, and in that decade, the 38-year-old Stanford graduate says the main track surface has remained one of the most consistent in Southern California.That opinion could be helpful to bettors as the popular track begins its annual 43-day run of fun in the sun for the 63rd time on July 24. Del Mar, a showcase among the country’s racing venues since president Joe Harper had it refurbished in 1993, races Wednesday through Monday through September 11. Tuesdays are dark."Del Mar has been the one constant in a positive sense," said Hess, who captured the Del Mar training title in 1991 with 18 wins and again in 1992 with 22. "Del Mar and Santa Anita haven’t changed a whole lot. The turf course at Santa Anita obviously has. I think any changes that have taken place at Del Mar have been for the better."The main track has always been a real good track. I know a few years ago (1998) everyone was complaining about it (when there were a multitude of breakdowns), but my opinion is Hollywood was to blame and Del Mar might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. All the problems that occurred at Hollywood came to light at Del Mar."In addition to offering world-class racing, Del Mar has been California’s vacation getaway for horsemen and fans since 1937, when Bing Crosby and his Hollywood cronies opened the track where the turf meets the surf. It provides welcome relief from the repetitive, citified atmosphere of Hollywood Park and Santa Anita."We love it and the kids love it, even though it’s the busiest time of the year in relation to work," said Hess, whose two sons, Garrison, 10, and Christian, eight, have enjoyed their summers at Del Mar, although they could miss it this season due to baseball commitments. "But," Hess added, "with school being out, we get to spend time with the family, so it’s the best of both worlds."Hess does not expect to win another training crown at Del Mar this season, but he hopes to make a representative showing.
"I’m going to have eight or 10 (horses) at Saratoga," Hess said, "so it will weaken me a bit at Del Mar. I might not have the quantity that I’d love to have, but I’ll definitely have quality at Del Mar. Look for me to win a high percentage of races."Anything specific to bet on?
"Look for a colt I’m running opening day," said Hess, who played one year of college baseball at Stanford with future major leaguers Jack McDowell and Mike Aldrete. "The horse is named Dirty Trick, by Favorite Trick."Favorite Trick, lest we forget, was Horse of the Year in 1997 as a 2-year-old.
THE HOMESTRETCH: Del Mar Director of Racing Tom Robbins says the horse population this meet will be "strong. We’ll have a filled-up barn area as we normally do," he said. "We don’t lack horses, but we hope we can get as many as we can to perform in the afternoons. It should be pretty solid." Although in the past there has been talk of the turf course being widened, Robbins said that is unlikely to happen in the near future. "It sort of got stalled," Robbins said, "but one thing we did for this year was to add another rail position. We don’t have a terribly wide course, and when we’ve moved the rail (in the past), it was from about the middle of each turn and it’s never been moved on the backstretch. The horses have always been running over the same ground (and consequently wearing the path thin). Now we have a combination of some moves that I think will help." A year-round maintenance and cultivation program for the grass course was overseen by turf expert Leif Dickinson. Previously, the track was limited to one movement of the turf rail through the stretch from zero to 12 feet out. Now there will be two, from zero to seven feet and then 14 feet out. In addition, there will be two settings on the backstretch of the course at zero and seven feet . . . Robbins hopes to get Bob Baffert to run Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem on Aug. 25 in the $1 million Pacific Classic, Del Mar’s marquee race which Bobby Frankel has won six times in 11 runnings. Frankel plans to run the sensational filly, Surya, in the Grade I Ramona Handicap on July 27. The 11/8-mile grass test recently was renamed the John C. Mabee Ramona Handicap in memory of Del Mar’s late president and chairman of the board, and a prominent California breeder for more than 40 years . . . Trainer Bruce Headley reports 2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion Kona Gold will run next in the $200,000 Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar on July 27, after finishing an uncharacteristic sixth in the Triple Bend at Hollywood on July 6. "He came out of the race fine," Headley said of the 8-year-old, "but he suffered some cuts on his leg, caused when P Val (Pat Valenzuela, aboard second-place finisher D’wildcat) crowded him. Other than that, he seems to be fine. You can’t have a horse laying on you and stop you from running and expect to pick up momentum again carrying 126 pounds." Valenzuela drew a three-day suspension for his efforts . . . Trainer Craig Dollase wouldn’t specify on the ailment that forced Swept Overboard to miss the Triple Bend, calling it a "minor setback." Dollase plans to run the son of the recently euthanized End Sweep "one or two times" before the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Arlington Park on Oct. 26.