DEL MAR — Every summer, amid the refreshing ocean breeze and soothing Bing Crosby music, the quest to identify the next top young thoroughbred racehorse begins here.
"There's nothing more exciting than having a really good 2-year-old," trainer Bob Baffert said. "It's like new recruits. Any sports franchise, they're excited about the rookies. You got to get a Reggie Bush."
As the 43-day Del Mar meet begins today, Baffert's stable is stocked with young horses and high hopes. He said he could send out as many as 20 first-time starters before the summer is finished.
"You want to unleash the stars of the future," he said.
Del Mar, with its ideal placement in the racing calendar, attracts large fields of 2-year-olds getting their first chances to show whether they are pretenders or contenders.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Horse racing: An article on Del Mar racetrack in Sports on Wednesday reported the sire of Notional was In Access; the sire is In Excess. Also, that article reported that Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby in 1987; Ferdinand won the Derby in 1986.
Almost every summer, a top 2-year-old filly or colt emerges here, and being around to witness the first moments of star power produces an adrenaline rush, whether for the jockey, trainer, owner or fans.
Last year, Stevie Wonderboy got his maiden win at Del Mar, won the closing-day Del Mar Futurity and became the Eclipse Award winner for 2-year-old males. In 2004, Declan's Moon and Sweet Catomine followed similar paths, earning maiden victories at Del Mar before becoming champion 2-year-olds.
From 1996 through 2002, Baffert's horses won the Del Mar Futurity seven consecutive years. Silver Charm got his maiden win at Del Mar in 1996, then won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in '97.
Ferdinand made his debut as a 2-year-old at Del Mar before winning the 1987 Kentucky Derby. Bertrando, Eliza, Itsallgreektome, Pleasant Stage and Tight Spot all began their careers at Del Mar in the 1990s before becoming major stakes winners.
It means there will be lots of buzz around the track as trainers unveil their promising 2-year-olds.
One good-looking Baffert colt already made his debut at Hollywood Park, the $1.2-million yearling purchase E Z Warrior, who won the Hollywood Juvenile Championship on the Fourth of July.
Baffert is reluctant to single out others until they run "because I've been disappointed where I thought they were good and didn't pan out."
Baffert has particularly high hopes for Malt Magic, a son of Cherokee Run who was a $320,000 yearling purchase, and Point Ashley, a daughter of Point Given who was bought for $725,000.
Other trainers can't wait to turn loose their first-time starters. Jeff Mullins, who won the training title last year at Del Mar, has two unnamed 2-year-olds by sires Wild Again and Wild Wonder that he believes have promise.
Doug O'Neill, second-place finisher in the trainer standings at Hollywood Park, likes his 2-year-old filly Cool All Over, a daughter of the new sire Johannesburg, and has big plans for Notional, a son of In Access.
"For owners, who you're trying to keep happy, it's a beautiful day for racing, and if you have one 2-year-old you're high on, it's the meet to give them the acid test and see what you have," O'Neill said.
For trainers interested in preparing their horses to run in the Breeders' Cup in the fall, gaining momentum at Del Mar is a must, according to Mullins.
"When you get to Del Mar, you better have them revved up and ready to go or you're not going to make any of the big races," he said.
Del Mar isn't the only track expected to showcase young horses this summer. Saratoga begins its 36-day meeting in upstate New York on July 26 and is known as the East Coast version of Del Mar. Tracks in Florida, Kentucky and New Jersey will have their share of newcomers.
Dealing with sometimes precocious 2-year-olds is one of the most demanding challenges a thoroughbred trainer faces.
Trainers try to assume the role of coach and parent, teaching, schooling and experimenting with 1,000-pound animals that are bred to run fast but can break down quickly.
"There's a fine line," Baffert said. "You have to be careful. You could ruin a horse easily, trying to rush him too quickly, especially if they are very talented horses. You have to make sure they are in top physical shape because when they get tired, that's when they have a better chance of getting hurt."
There are no guarantees of victory for a promising 2-year-old, particularly because of the short distances of the early races. Not winning a 5 1/2 -furlong maiden sprint shouldn't tarnish the reputation of a 2-year-old bred to run 1 1/4 miles.
"You want to win every race, but young horses are going to get beat," Baffert said.
And 2-year-olds are good at fooling people.
"They're like kids," Baffert said. "One week they'll work great, the next week, not look as good. Then they work better. We take our time."
What's certain is that Baffert and others look forward to what Del Mar has to offer, its relaxing atmosphere, its welcoming spirit and its perfect setting for discovering the champions of the future.
"Everybody loves Del Mar," Baffert said. "It's like a working vacation, but it's very competitive with good horses."
Del Mar meet
Facts and figures on the Del Mar summer season, which opens today:
Dates: Today-Sept. 6 (43 days)
* Post times: 2 p.m. Wednesday-Monday except 4 p.m. on July 21, July 28, Aug. 4 and Aug. 11; 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 18, Aug. 25 and Sept. 1; 1 p.m. on Aug. 20.
* Significant races: $400,000 John C. Mabee Handicap Saturday; $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap Sunday; $300,000 Bing Crosby Handicap July 30; $400,000 Del Mar Oaks Aug. 19; $1-million Pacific Classic Aug. 20; $400,000 Del Mar Derby Sept. 3; $250,000 Del Mar Debutante Sept. 4; $250,000 Del Mar Futurity Sept. 6.
* Leading jockey 2005 meet: Victor Espinoza.
* Leading trainer 2005 meet: Jeff Mullins.