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No Hollywood ending to his story

Joe Harper is from film royalty -- he's Cecil B. DeMille's grandson -- but horse racing was his calling. He's had a great run as head of Del Mar.

August 19, 2007|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Joe Harper was, you might say, bred to be in horse racing -- or the movie business.

His mother, Cecilia, was riding horses almost before she could walk; his grandfather was legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille.

Harper, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which runs the state-owned racetrack, recalls a story about his mother and grandfather when she was 6 and he was making a silent western movie. One scene called for the actors to ride horses down a hill.

"The actors said the hill was too steep and it was too dangerous," Harper said in an interview in his Del Mar office. "So my grandfather had my mom ride a horse down the hill, and that took care of that."

Cecilia, who died in 1984 at age 75, was a prominent horsewoman who bred thoroughbreds on the 1,000-acre family ranch. She was the only child of Cecil and Constance DeMille. The couple later adopted a daughter and two sons. The adopted daughter, Katherine, married actor Anthony Quinn.

Harper, 64, grew up in Hollywood and hung out with the children of Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas and Hedy Lamarr.

As a youngster, Harper appeared as an extra in two of his grandfather's movies -- "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952) and "The Ten Commandments" (1956).

But as a young man, Harper's real interest was with the horses. He was 16 when DeMille died in 1959, graduated from boarding school in Tucson, attended USC for a year, then enrolled at Chapman College.

"I got tossed out of both schools," he said.

The problem was Harper would have rather skipped class than miss post time at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park. He even dabbled in rodeo, riding bucking broncos.

But his parents wanted him to get a job, and they helped him get one in the mail room at MGM. "I think everyone who worked in that mail room was the son or daughter of someone," Harper said. "My first day on the job, they asked me, 'OK, whose kid are you?' "

He soon became the head of the mail room. "But I didn't think I wanted to make a career out of that," he said.

What he yearned for was a career in horse racing. He landed an executive position with the Oak Tree Racing Assn. in 1971, and headed south to Del Mar in 1977. He became the general manager the following year and has been running the track ever since.

Harper has the reputation of being a hands-on boss. It's not uncommon to see him visiting the stables on the backstretch at 5 a.m.

The current 43-day meeting has in many ways been a good one. Del Mar's on-track betting handle at the halfway point last Saturday was up 3.1% from 2006, the overall handle was up 5.8% and daily attendance was up from an average of 15,822 last year to 16,233.

Most important, heading into the meet's signature race, today's $1-million Pacific Classic, the new Polytrack synthetic racing surface has been doing what it was supposed to do -- keeping horses and riders safe.

During the first 20 days of last year's meet, nine horses broke down on the old dirt track and were euthanized. So far, the new track's record has been perfect. No horses have broken down and there have been few injuries.

Rick Arthur, California's equine medical director who is closely monitoring the new track, said, "I'm very pleased with what we've seen so far. I've spoken to many of my veterinarian colleagues on the backstretch and most of them are cautiously optimistic.

"We are still early in this process, but so far the results are very encouraging."

Arthur offered an example of the difference this year: "Right now if you want to have an X-ray taken of your horse at the hospital on the backstretch you can have it done the same day. Before it might take you two or three days to get in. The injuries aren't there now."

But that doesn't mean the new track is without critics.

The most outspoken is trainer Bob Baffert, who believes the track should be watered in the afternoon to keep it fast.

And prominent owner Ahmed Zayat, for whom Baffert trains, shipped 27 horses he had stabled at Del Mar to Saratoga after a disagreement with Harper about the new track.

"I respect the guy because he certainly put a lot of money in this game and he's got some great horses," Harper said. "And they're speed horses. He likes speed.

"He told me that morning that speed was everything. I told him, 'Isn't winning what it's all about?' He said, 'No, speed.' He wanted me to 'fix' the racetrack so it would be faster. My response was that I couldn't do that because this track is safer, and it is safer when it is slower. He said he would like to see it faster in the afternoon comparable to the morning hours when it is cooler and the track is tighter. I said, 'If we can adjust the track to that, I wouldn't mind seeing it.' But I certainly wasn't going to change it, and he didn't want to hear that. So he left."

Harper also points out a positive aspect to not watering the new track: More than 3 million gallons of water will be saved by the end of the meet.

But Harper says he understands Baffert's point of view.

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