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Del Mar breathes a sigh of relief

Meeting ends after highs and lows that fueled the debate over synthetic surfaces.

September 10, 2009|Eric Sondheimer

After the last horse crossed the finish line Wednesday during the final race of the final day of the Del Mar meeting, a sigh of relief could be felt from horsemen who have experienced roller-coaster-like highs and lows this summer.

There were 12 catastrophic injuries on Del Mar's Polytrack during the 37-day meeting, eight coming during morning workouts. Thirteen horses had to be euthanized, up from eight last year and more than twice as many as 2007, when six died during the first year of the synthetic surface.

The spike in horse deaths has added fuel to an intensifying debate over the California Horse Racing Board's mandate from three years ago that required the state's main race track venues to switch from dirt to synthetic surfaces.

The response Wednesday from Del Mar's leading trainer, John Sadler, who finished with 31 victories, spoke volumes about the continuing controversy.

"No comment," was Sadler's answer to a question about the Polytrack's troubles.

On Monday, Sadler's 4-year-old filly, Dawn Before Dawn, suffered a cracked pelvis running in the Adoration Stakes, ending her racing career.

What the Del Mar meeting has shown is that the maintenance of synthetic surfaces remains a mystery, particularly in locations where the weather fluctuates.

"The difficult part is getting to understand the track and how it changes with temperature," said Joe Harper, Del Mar's president and general manager. "The frustrating part is you have horsemen who hate it."

Harper, however, said he is convinced that Polytrack fits Del Mar's needs.

"What we were hoping for is a more forgiving track, and that's what we have," he said.

Others are having their patience tested and are losing confidence.

"Now that we've had three years of them, I think we all feel that they're not what they were supposed to be," trainer Mike Mitchell said.

Last April, the CHRB sent word that if a track wants to switch back to dirt, the board would be receptive to granting a waiver of its mandate for synthetic surfaces. The debate over synthetic tracks is expected to gain attention on Nov. 6-7 when the Breeders' Cup, racing's world championships, is held at Santa Anita.

Among the Del Mar highlights this season:

* Bob Baffert, trainer extraordinaire. Baffert's horses won five of Del Mar's nine Grade I races, including Richard's Kid in Sunday's $1-million Pacific Classic and Lookin at Lucky in Monday's Del Mar Futurity.

* Attendance remains strong. Del Mar continues to be the most popular track in Southern California, averaging 17,181 in daily attendance, up from 16,002 last year, including a track-record crowd of 44,907 that showed up on opening day. Overall attendance dropped from 688,097 last year to 635,679 this year with six fewer racing days.

* The rise of Joel Rosario. After winning the jockey title at Hollywood Park, Rosario showed it was no fluke, winning the Del Mar title with 55 wins, including four Wednesday.

* Zenyatta's still perfect. Zenyatta's 12th consecutive victory in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes by a head kept the 5-year-old mare on a path to finishing her career unbeaten.

Baze gets victory

Tyler Baze guided Gotta Have Her to victory by a neck over Lethal Heat in the Grade II $200,000 Palomar Handicap, the closing-day feature at 1 1/16 miles on the Del Mar turf. Favorite Caribbean Sunset finished third. Trained by Jenine Sahadi, Gotta Have Her ran the distance in 1:40.67.

Horse of the year

Thoroughbred racing writers are proclaiming that Rachel Alexandra has locked up horse-of-the-year honors, and John Shirreffs, the trainer of Zenyatta, acknowledged as much, "It probably is."

Zenyatta was runner-up to Curlin for horse of the year in 2008 and figured to be the leading candidate this year until Rachel Alexandra's emergence.


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