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BILL DWYRE

Del Mar is on shaky footing, even before racing starts

Facing an unstable season because of the economy, the racetrack also is dealing with criticism for its handling of a horse's breakdown during a workout Sunday.

July 22, 2009|BILL DWYRE

The 70th race meeting at Del Mar begins today, and the prevailing image when it comes to this track is of large crowds embracing sunny days and gentle breezes.

But a storm is brewing here, bad things happening days before the actual racing was set to start.

Sunday morning, a maiden claimer named Mad for Plaid, trained by Peter Miller and owned by Steve Kenly, broke down in training and created an ugly scene that brought angry reaction all around.

No outrider was nearby, the ambulance that arrived after a long delay was an old trailer pulled by a tractor, and the injured horse, with broken bones in her left front leg, tried to escape as horrified onlookers watched. According to the Racing Form, she was eventually caught and sedated, then collapsed on the track, was pulled into the ambulance by winch, and was euthanized.

The two newer ambulances used on the Southern California race circuit were still at Hollywood Park, where racing ended Sunday.

Kenly, who watched his horse go down near the finish line, said Monday that, while he understood injuries were part of racing, he also felt, "These guys [Del Mar] should be prepared. What happened and how it happened is unacceptable at a major league track."

Joe Harper, Del Mar's chief executive, agreed. "There's no excuse for this," he said, adding that he had called a meeting to make sure nothing like this happened again.

Even before the incident, the warm and fuzzy that has always accompanied the beginning of Del Mar was more like lukewarm and uncertain. Along with the Triple Crown season and the Breeders' Cup, boutique meetings with short runs in resort areas -- such as Del Mar and Saratoga -- have always been positives for racing.

Harper, who is among the most respected and likable people in racing, has a set line for anybody who calls Del Mar "the Saratoga of the West."

That is, "We like to think of Saratoga as the Del Mar of the East."

But with a changing economy and a diminishing fan base, Harper and racing are thinking more of survival than geography. "I'm going into this with optimistic concern, if there is such a phrase," he said.

The issues are all around.

It was at Del Mar in 2006 that so many horses broke down and died, both in morning workouts and during racing, that the California Horse Racing Board was prompted to mandate new synthetic tracks for all. At an estimated cost of $50 million, Southern California's three racing jewels -- Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar -- replaced their racing surfaces.

Del Mar was known as the place where the turf meets the surf. Now, it's where the Polytrack meets the surf. Doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?

CHRB figures put the reduction in racing fatalities since the advent of synthetics at 11%. Still, the synthetics remain highly controversial. Some owners and trainers have left the state. Others fear that gamblers who cite a difficulty in handicapping synthetic races are betting elsewhere, or not at all.

Looming over all this is the uncertainty about the very brick and mortar existence of those three Southern California jewels.

Hollywood Park, once a place to be for much of the movie industry, is now owned by a Northern California development company that intends to turn the place into condos, restaurants and movie theaters as soon as the free flow of loan money returns. The RIP sign at the entrance is likely no more than two years away.

Santa Anita, a postcard amid surrounding mountains with a tradition that allows it to unabashedly call itself "the Great Race Place," is in bankruptcy proceedings. It makes money, but owner Magna Entertainment Corp. does not. So, while it is unthinkable that horse racing would ever leave there, it is not impossible.

Del Mar is perceived as the most untouchable of the three jewels. Owned by the state, it has operated under a series of 20-year leases. The most recent lease is through the end of the year, and Harper said, "Our company comes to a screeching halt Dec. 31."

He knows that is probably an exaggeration, but he also knows nothing is certain, that the next lease, presuming Del Mar gets it, will more likely be for five years, and that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has mentioned the sale of Del Mar as a possible way to reduce the state's debt.

Harper said Del Mar has produced "millions in revenue" for the state and that its location -- a well-regulated, low-lying water land -- does not make it prime real estate for other uses.

"It took me seven years for them to let me put a tunnel in," he added.

Last year, a record crowd of 43,494 showed up at Del Mar on opening day, a number that could be challenged today.

The main race will be the Oceanside Stakes, with a full field of 10 3-year-olds. But even that indicates a slippage from the past.

The Oceanside has almost always been run in divisions. As recently as 2007, it had three. The last time it was only one race was 1988.

Also shrinking: the race calendar. Del Mar will run five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, not its traditional six.

Bing Crosby started the track and greeted people at the entrances on opening day in 1937. Harper has carried the torch since 1977 and says Del Mar is like "one of my kids."

The meeting's signature moment will be the Pacific Classic on Sept. 6, three days before it closes. Then, racing can assess itself again, as it will for the foreseeable future.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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