Mike Mitchell is counting the hours until Del Mar opens on July 23.
The 55-year-old trainer has a lot of company. It is a sentiment held by the vast majority of horsemen in Southern California, who annually anticipate their pilgrimage to the track where the turf meets the surf with the eagerness of a teenager about to get behind the wheel of a car for the first time.
"I try to ship all my horses down to Del Mar," Mitchell said. "I just like it there. I get settled in but I don’t think there’s a lot of adjustment (for the horses on the main track). As for the turf course, all three Southern California tracks are about the same. The dirt course is a little faster at Del Mar (than at Hollywood), but I’m really looking forward to Del Mar. I’m counting the hours.
"Although the purse money is good, from a trainer’s standpoint, it is easy to hustle clients to get horses at Del Mar. Right now people are claiming like crazy to run there. I’m shaking (pills with other trainers) every time I’m in (to claim) for a horse. It will be like this for about a month. It’s just wild. I love it."
Mitchell offered this advice to early-phase bettors at Del Mar: "It used to be that it took about a week for the dirt surface to settle down but now (track superintendent Steve) Wood gets an early start on it. He’s got it normal on opening day. The track used to be kind of slow and got faster as more horses ran over it. (But) last year it was fast the first day I was on it, so again, I don’t think there’s any real big adjustment. If there is, it’s coming from Santa Anita to Hollywood, although this year Hollywood has been fast, where last year it was slower and horses training at Santa Anita were laboring over it."
Mitchell, primarily a claiming trainer, might have bit off more than he could chew in an attempt to elevate his stable.
"I wanted to start buying young horses, but I made a mistake buying expensive horses and had to run them again powerhouse stables like (Bob) Baffert’s," Mitchell said. "Recently I bought moderately-priced horses, from $25,000 to $50,000, that I can run in claiming races. Everything I picked out is up to about a half a mile (in training), so I should look good at Del Mar.
"I have a really nice Cal-bred filly for Nick Alexander named Travel Post Card. She’s by General Meeting and I just love her. She’ll be a nice filly in a maiden Cal-bred race."
Trainer Wesley Ward thinks horses coming from other points will adapt well at Del Mar.
"Horses that go to Del Mar in form pretty much stay in form," Ward said. "Sometimes horses training at San Luis Rey (Downs) have an edge because they’re accustomed to the seashore climate, but whatever the reason, they seem to run well there."
Ward is high on a 2-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Elusive Quality named Courageous King.
"I paid $700,000 for him with my partner, Roger King," Ward said. "I named the horse after him and I’m crossing my fingers."
In addition to horses adjusting to a new environment, there’ll be some fresh faces in the jockeys’ room at Del Mar.
"This is a particularly tough meet, especially in the first three or four weeks," says Richie Silverstein, agent for Martin Pedroza and Iggy Puglisi. "There are about 13 riders who want to be leading rider. Naturally, Pat Valenzuela and Victor Espinoza will have the edge coming off the meet they’re having at Hollywood (where they rank one-two). Julie Krone will be back by then. Not that she’ll be leading rider, but she’ll be a factor. Kent Desormeaux will be back, too. I don’t look for him to be leading rider, either, but he’ll be a factor.
"The jockey colony can use riders like Krone and Desormeaux coming back, because Patrick and Victor have become too strong. It’s like the old days of Pincay and Hawley and Pincay and McCarron when they were always one-two in the standings and far ahead of the third-place rider. The drop-off from second to third is so drastic that it hurts the business of riders who are eighth and ninth and below. Those guys are better off if the leading rider only has about 10 more wins than the ninth-leading jockey.
"(Gary) Stevens will be riding more horses, too. Bug riders like Mick Ruis and Mike Baze should see a lot of action, but whoever it is, you don’t want to see more riders because the pie is only so big. Still, when two riders dominate, you need more riders to break up their control, so personally I’m happy to see a large nucleus, because I still look to get my business with Iggy and Martin. That might be easier to accomplish with more riders than fewer because right now, Patrick and Espinoza are just winning everything."
HOMESTRETCH: Add news you can bet on: In the May 20-26 editions of GamingToday, we wrote: "California’s workers’ compensation ordeal is far from over. The high cost of insurance premiums already has forced some horsemen to leave the state, and others are considering a boycott of the entry box."
A month later, a publication considered "The Bible" of the industry came out with the story of a possible entry box boycott. The exorbitant insurance premiums in Southern California, which are brought about mainly due to fraudulent claims, are not restricted to the racing industry. All businesses are effected. Consider this from the July/August issue of "Westways," published by the Automobile Club of Southern California since 1909: "A study released in 2003 by Runzheimer International indicates that auto insurance rates in Los Angeles are second highest in the nation, second only to Detroit. But insurance premiums are expensive here in part because so many people do swindle money from insurance companies.
The National Crime Bureau, an insurance-industry group that fights fraud, receives some 70,000 suspicious claims reports each year from member companies. Nearly a quarter come from California ”” and nearly half of those from the greater Los Angeles area. ”˜Southern California is the hottest accident-fraud area in the country,’ says Ed Sparkman, public affairs manager for the Bureau." That said, horsemen were facing the following new rates from American Insurance Group, effective July 1, the renewal date for workers’ compensation policies: a base rate of $35.04 per $100 of payroll and $104.24 per start, both figures to be discounted based on a trainer’s premium size and experience modification. Competitor State Fund’s base rates were $58.05 per $100 of payroll and $172.46 per start, less discounts.