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Simulcast this! Fans love Del Mar

Aug 27, 2002 6:10 AM

Del Mar, "The Track of Dreams." People will come. People will definitely come.

Since the gates opened on July 24 for the 43-day meet that ends Sept. 11, business has been booming on virtually all fronts.

On-track handle was up five percent. Overall handle was up 5½ percent. And on-track attendance had increased about six percent, and this was before Sunday, when the track presented its marquee race, the $1 million Pacific Classic.

In the era of simulcasting when major Southern California tracks such as Santa Anita and Hollywood Park are hard-pressed to draw 5,000 fans on weekdays, Del Mar has reversed a lamentable trend, to the extent that even track president and general manager Joe Harper couldn’t pinpoint specific reasons for the upsurge.

More than 37,000 fans were on hand opening day, a record for a Del Mar opener, and they’ve kept coming.

"I wish I could put a finger on why," Harper said. "I think a lot more people are staying around town and I think the concerts and other promotions we’ve presented the past few years are catching on little by little. This year, they’ve caught on more than they have in the past.

"On Saturday (Aug. 17), we had 31,000 on track (actually 30,723, the best Del Mar crowd other than an opening day or Pacific Classic day) and I’d love to think they all came for the racing, but I think the Violent Femmes, the (musical) group in the infield, had something to do with it.

"Del Mar’s gotten to be kind of the place to be, and the party atmosphere is part of it. But Saratoga’s having a good year, too, as are some of the other tracks."

There was concern that when advance deposit wagering was legalized in California on Jan. 1, it could have had a negative effect on the live gate. But that has not been the case at Del Mar.

"Maybe folks are staying at home more," Harper said, "but our on-track attendance fortunately hasn’t reflected that, even though these days there are too many opportunities to make a bet somewhere other than the race track. Besides the availability of off-track wagering, there are other things to consider that might keep fans from attending, such as heavy traffic, things like that."

When simulcasting reared its ugly head in California some 15 years ago, it changed the face of racing forever.

"Obviously, we saw the brunt of that in 1988 (when simulcasting was initiated at Del Mar)," Harper said. "There was a 25 percent decline in on-track attendance, but a 113 percent increase in profits. This meet, I guess folks are a little more comfortable coming to Del Mar and if we can make a little more money (through that means), that’s good. With ADW, we were worried about cannibalization, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

"Our increase in handle seems to be all incremental money. We’re doing between $600,000-$700,000 a day (via ADW), and I’ll tell you, it’s all new money to us, and that’s nice."

THE HOMESTRETCH: Bob Moreno, racing secretary for mixed breeds at Fairplex Park, says the Pomona track which runs for 17 consecutive days from Sept. 13 through Sept. 29, will present a 350-yard match race on Sept. 14 between the "Secretariat of mules," Black Ruby, and her arch-rival, Taz, a male mule that has finished second to Black Ruby 12 times in the last two years. The purse will be $10,000, but it won’t be winner-take-all. Black Ruby, a 10-year-old mule, has won 47 of 54 career starts, with six seconds and one third. She was beaten a head by Taz on Saturday at Sacramento. There’s not much money in mule racing, however. For her efforts, Black Ruby has earned about $180,000 . . . Gary Stevens hopes to resume riding before Del Mar closes. His acting career, meanwhile, is off and running. The 39-year-old Hall of Fame jockey will play George (The Iceman) Woolf in the movie, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand . . . Jack Carava is one of many trainers happy to see racing remain at Fairplex, at least for this season. "I’ll run a few there," Carava said, "but I think it’s a good spot for the some of the smaller outfits to make money. It’s fun and it’s a tradition."