What has become a destination summertime location for high society, handicappers and horsemen has become an important fork in the road for the rest of the racing year.
Even before Del Mar opens at 2 p.m. PDT Wednesday for its 79th summer of racing, it was already the scene for trainer Bob Baffert’s declaration Monday morning that Triple Crown winner Justify will not race again until perhaps the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
While Baffert was speaking to reporters, his barn was filling with the likes of champions West Coast and Abel Tasman, both of which figure to be betting favorites on their own whenever they hit the Del Mar track at the junction of turf and surf.
While the east waits for Saratoga to open Friday, 104 horses will get a head start in 10 races Wednesday at Del Mar, where the 79th annual opening day marks the start of a 36-day meet that ends Labor Day. A full field of 14 was drawn into the $100,000-added Oceanside Stakes, Wednesday’s turf feature for 3-year-old milers in search of their first decent stakes win covering at least that distance.
Saturday brings both the $200,000 Grade 2 San Clemente Stakes and the $200,000 Grade 2 San Diego Handicap, the race that was the beginning of the end last year for Arrogate. While the reasons for his decline and fall from best in the world remain unclear, the story still ends back at Del Mar.
Whether it is the unique mix of loam and sea air, a dead rail last fall, an inability to digest the track’s idiosyncrasies, homework gnawed by canines or none of the above, Del Mar has been at the crossroads of the last two racing years. It certainly has been a graveyard for bettors who have been trying to make sense of anomalies like 66-1 and 30-1 Breeders’ Cup winners.
Part of the trick may be to follow the leaders – the connections who have had the most recent success at Del Mar.
With 35 wins and a strike rate of 21 percent last year, Flavien Prat won the riding championship that he shared in 2016. “This is his track, and he feels he knows every nuance of it,” agent Derek Lawson said after Prat won last year’s jockey title.
Prat will be aboard three-time winner Texas Wedge (9-2), the second choice on the morning line for the Oceanside. The pace-chasing colt sired by Colonel John won a five-furlong sprint at Del Mar in his turf debut last November.
With 18 wins, Richard Baltas shared the training title last year. He saddles Desert Stone (4-1), the morning-line favorite in the Oceanside. The closer sired by Fastnet Rock was moved from Rudy Rodríguez’s barn to Baltas’s last winter and comes to Del Mar off back-to-back wins at Santa Anita.
The Hronis brothers – Kosta and Peter – have won three of the last five owners championships working mostly with trainer John Sadler, who saddled Accelerate’s upset victory over Arrogate in last year’s San Diego Handicap. The Hronis-Sadler combination will have Move Over (6-1), formerly based in England, stretching from his first U.S. win in a Santa Anita sprint into Wednesday’s feature.
The Oceanside also includes Arawak (6-1), a transfer from Wesley Ward to Doug O’Neill; pace-setting Calexman (6-1), a two-time winner that broke his maiden last November on the Del Mar turf; and Afleet Ascent (8-1), Jerry Hollendorfer’s speed horse that faded off the board in his last three starts.
One live long shot that may be worth a second look is Soltero (20-1), a speed colt that broke his maiden last month at Santa Anita in another mile turf race. While his speed figures leave something to be desired, he is trained by Phil D’Amato, whose 41 victories the last two summers led all Del Mar trainers.
So is this just a track that favors course horses – and course trainers and jockeys and owners? Or is it just another one of the mysteries of this place that Bing Crosby and his Hollywood cronies opened 81 years ago?
The next seven weeks will tell. Or not.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Handicapper Anthony Stabile of the New York Racing Association and Horse Racing Radio Network and six-time NYRA champion horse owner Michael Dubb are this week’s scheduled guests.