If your prevailing image of thoroughbred racing in Southern California is a Thursday afternoon at Hollywood Park, when the empty seats outnumber the live bodies by about 30,000, then be open to another look.
It is August at Del Mar. It is also five days to the Pacific Classic.
There used to be several million-dollar thoroughbred races in Southern California. Now, there are only the Santa Anita Derby and the Pacific Classic. Although the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup are competitive counterparts, there is something fitting about the Pacific Classic being one of two remaining big guys, at least dollar-wise.
It takes place at Del Mar, and along with Saratoga in the East, remains a model of sorts for ongoing success in an industry that seems to struggle to remain ongoing. Santa Anita's winter meeting, starting with its traditional day-after-Christmas opener, is the driving force in Southern California racing and will remain so.
But Del Mar is the annual breath of fresh air. It has long days, summer temperatures and, as a real estate person would say, "location, location, location." It has just enough of a racing season, eight weeks, to keep it fun and not become tedious. It starts with an opening day that features thousands of women dressing up as if they were headed to a Las Vegas nightclub. It winds down with the Pacific Classic on Sunday. Both are crowd-enticing attractions.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 26, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Del Mar race: A column in the Aug. 23 Sports section about the Pacific Classic thoroughbred race at Del Mar said that 15 years ago the racehorse Cigar was attempting to win his 16th consecutive race. In fact, Cigar entered that year's Pacific Classic attempting to win his 17th race in a row.
This year's race is expected to feature several current thoroughbred stars. When they hold the draw Wednesday night, likely entrants include Twirling Candy, Acclamation, Game On Dude, Setsuko and Tres Borrachos.
There is also a Zenyatta-like story.
The star mare Blind Luck might enter. She won the Kentucky Oaks in 2010, was the 3-year-old filly champion that year, has started 21 times, won 12 and never finished out of the money. Her trainer, Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, turned down races in the East and has been coy about what is next, but it's clear that she is staying on the Left Coast.
If Blind Luck starts with the boys Sunday at Del Mar, she will be only the third female to give it a try in the Pacific Classic, the other two with no success.
This isn't the Breeders' Cup Classic, and she isn't Zenyatta, but the similarity of story lines will resonate with many fans, if it comes to pass. Racing fans have seen Blind Luck enough, especially in her duels with Evening Jewel, to know she would be much more than just a pretty face among the guys.
Even without Blind Luck, the lead-up to the Pacific Classic has been interesting and produced several story lines to help keep fans engaged. For example:
* Saturday, young jockey Joe Talamo won three races. Sunday, he won three more. Hot jockeys attract attention and attendance, especially when the hot jockey is as nice a kid as Talamo.
* On the other hand, jockey Tyler Baze didn't race last weekend after he failed a breathalyzer test.
* Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Del Mar Oaks was won by Summer Soiree, trained by Graham Motion, who also trained Animal Kingdom to this year's Kentucky Derby victory. Often, Eastern trainers ship their horses here and go have dinner at Saratoga. Motion came and stayed for a while.
* In the first race Saturday, veteran jockey Martin Pedroza took a frightening spill when his horse, Honey's Prize, was literally knocked off her feet and onto her back on the clubhouse turn. Honey's Prize was unhurt. The 46-year-old Pedroza rode the ambulance back to the jockeys' room, then got on a 27-1 shot in the second race and rode the 2-year-old Nebikon to third place.
* There was a strange sighting in the winner's circle after the third race. In the winning group for Indizguys Stables were Jack Disney of the old Herald Examiner and Ross Newhan, formerly of the L.A. Times, awaiting Talamo and their horse for celebration and picture-taking. This answered the questions of what old sportswriters, those smart enough to retire, do in their twilight years and how they spend their meager pensions.
Disney was interviewed Sunday morning on Mike Willman's "Thoroughbred Los Angeles" radio show on KLAA. Disney said he wanted to be clear that his winning horse, Talktoomuch, was not named after his wife. He said he shouldn't say any more. Willman responded, "You've already said too much."
* A staple of the Pacific Classic, the venerable Awesome Gem, won the Grade III Longacre Mile on Sunday at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash. Awesome Gem is 8 years old and has been in the last four Pacific Classics, taking second in 2007.
* Twenty years ago, the first Pacific Classic was won by Best Pal, a horse owned by John Mabee, who pushed to have a $1-million race at Del Mar.
* Fifteen years ago, the race marked Cigar's attempt to win his 16th consecutive race, a startling run until Zenyatta came around. The year before, the attendance had been 29,906. The year after, it was 26,476. In 1996, the year of Cigar, attendance was 44,181 and the handle was up $6 million. In the race, Dare And Go, under the ride of Alex Solis, moved on the homestretch and beat Cigar by 31/2 lengths. Dare And Go paid $81.20 to win and left the huge crowd in shock.
Track historian Hank Wesch writes that Mabee pushed for a $1-million Pacific Classic in 1991 to create something similar to "a Kentucky Derby on the West Coast."
That, of course, will never happen. There is no surf in Louisville, Ky.