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Del Mar set to ‘surface’
for annual summer fun fest

Jul 13, 2004 1:50 AM

There are two sides to every story. — Old journalistic credo.

When it comes to racing surfaces, there are more than two sides, depending on who you talk to.

In Southern California, main tracks at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar have been verbally brutalized through the years. Even fossilized Fairplex Park, a five-eighths of a mile track in beautiful down-town Pomona that runs less than three weeks a year, has been cuffed about on occasion, even though many horsemen feel it’s the safest surface in town.

But it’s the aforementioned Big Three that receives the brunt of the brickbats. With Del Mar set to embark on its annual 43-day summer break next Wednesday, horsemen have opinions at the ready as to whether their steeds will successfully make the conversion from Hollywood and other points.

"I don’t think Del Mar’s ever been that bad," says Bob Hess Jr., who was the leading trainer there in 1991 and 1992 and who makes his headquarters at Santa Anita. "The worse thing about Del Mar is Hollywood Park. Del Mar just happens to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. In my experience, Hollywood tears them up because it’s a winter track racing in the summer and it has too much sand."

Del Mar, which has a training track horses can gallop on but not actually work over, has taken criticism for having too many horses working on its main track in the mornings, but Hess has an alternative.

"The worst thing about Del Mar is not the traffic or the tight turns," the 39-year-old trainer said. "It’s the fact that it gets a lot of use, so it’s up to the trainers to be careful and work immediately after the renovation (there are three such surface freshenings each morning)."

Mike Mitchell, with 26 victories at Hollywood this meet to rank third in the standings, is enjoying a sensational campaign, but that’s not why he disagrees with Hess about the Inglewood surface, and it’s not because Hollywood is a convenient commute for Mitchell from his Redondo Beach home or because the 56-year-old trainer is stabled at Hollywood year-round.

"Hollywood has less breakdowns per start than any track in Southern California, and everybody wants to knock Hollywood Park," said a nonplused Mitchell, Del Mar’s leading trainer four times. "I know Jeff (Mullins) has had a rough time with his horses (at Hollywood this meet despite being leading trainer), but look at Doug O’Neill. He’s started twice as many horses as me and Jeff and says the track’s been good. I know the track’s been good to me. It’s been consistent. I remember one year I had a great meet but I broke down a lot of horses. This meet it’s been pretty good."

Blaming track surfaces for poor performances is a common bleat from trainers.

In fact, they are likely to accuse everyone but themselves: the jockey, the post position, the trip, but more often than not, the track. Before a race, they’ll say their horse is training exceptionally over the track. After it loses, they lamely say it didn’t like the track. Only rarely do they admit the horse wasn’t fully cranked for the race. Rarer still do they confess that the horse just can’t run.

There are exceptions, however.

Years ago at Garden State Park, which recently was crumbled into dust, I asked Bennie Perkins Sr., a successful trainer on the Jersey circuit for decades, about the chances of a maiden making its first start.

"Eddie," he told me unabashedly, "she ain’t worth two dead flies."

Boy, was he ever right. Somewhere, she’s still running.

The homestretch

More News You Can Bet On: Nearly four months ago, in our column of March 23, we wrote: "If Julie Krone announces her retirement, you read it here first." The Hall of Fame jockey, who turns 41 on July 24, said last Wednesday she was "leaning towards" retirement, although she left the door slightly ajar for another comeback. But don’t bet on it. It’s been seven months since she was injured in a spill at Hollywood last Dec. 12. During that span, she returned to ride only one day, Feb. 11, at Hollywood, before going into hibernation at her home in Carlsbad, only a few furlongs from Del Mar.

Horsemen are experiencing their customary claiming frenzy at the end of the Hollywood session in anticipation of Del Mar, which runs through Sept. 8. "We’ve claimed quite a few horses so far and we’ll try to take another four or five before Hollywood ends," said Hess, who has some 2-year-old prospects he hopes to debut at Del Mar. "I’ve got a Mazel Trick colt and a Silver Charm filly that can run," Hess said. "Her name’s Savannah Charm. I have a More Than Ready colt that can run and a Victory Gallop colt named Hammering Back that can really run."

Mitchell plans a fresh approach for Del Mar. "I bought some nice 2-year-olds and I’m going to do something new, training them at San Luis Rey (Downs) and legging them up a little bit more there and bringing them into Del Mar to run," he said. "Maybe that will hold them together better. Right now I’ve got a lot of my owners wanting to claim but I can’t find anything."

I have a sneaking suspicion that if either the Democrats or the Republicans presented Billy Graham and Mother Theresa on their Presidential ticket, the opposing party would find fault.