Fewer racehorses heighten drama at Del Mar

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A plunge in southern California’s Thoroughbred population could lead to smaller fields, fewer races and, as a worst-case scenario, an abbreviated calendar for Del Mar and its bettors this summer. (Ron Flatter photo)

Las Vegas

 

The numbers at Del Mar are daunting. Even as the 80th racing summer started with the perennially popular frat party that was Wednesday’s opening day, a lurking reality hovers over this year’s meet.

 

Because of an exodus of trainers during the ill-fated winter-spring meet at Santa Anita, southern California is running out of racehorses.

 

“We’re down about 15 percent compared to last year with our horse population, which is roughly (a decline of) 350,” Del Mar executive vice president Tom Robbins told the “Thoroughbred L.A.” radio show last Sunday. “Let’s face it, we have to be realistic. None of us have ever been in a situation like this. We’ve stressed over this and tried to figure out what we need to do. It’s been really, really tough.”

 

And it was not helped by Thursday morning’s training collision, a freak accident that took the lives of two more horses.

 

Do the math. Opening day had 93 horses in 10 races. That dropped to 59 for seven races Thursday, but that is still 152 horses in two days. At that rate it would take five weeks to go through the roughly 1,900 Thoroughbreds stabled at Del Mar. Presuming they race once a month, that may sound fine for a seven-week meet. But it leaves little room for error let alone horses that may not be ready to race.

 

Shippers will help, but it is uncertain how many will be brought to Del Mar, which offers $2,500 plus a 40 percent first-race purse bonus to entice entries from outside the region. Even then, the track is already trying to catch up.

 

Because Santa Anita was shut down in the middle of a season marred by the deaths of 30 horses, owners and trainers fled southern California. Just as an example, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune, last year’s Del Mar training champion Peter Miller moved about 25 of his 75 Thoroughbreds to Kentucky.

 

“A great amount of 2-year-olds didn’t ship out from the east coast just because they didn’t know how this thing was going to unfold,” Robbins said. “We really have to be realistic with what we’re working with right now.”

 

The new reality conspires with a multi-generational drop in the Thoroughbred population across North America. With the sport’s popularity waning and a dwindling breeding market being cornered by racing’s blue bloods, the 2018 foal crop sagged to a Jockey Club estimate of 19,925. Ten years earlier it was 32,332. In 1990 it was 40,333.

 

No wonder there is a fear that the Del Mar calendar intended to fill 36 Wednesday-Sunday racing dates through Labor Day could soon look like Santa Anita did toward the end of spring, when races were run only Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The same thing happened at the just-completed, three-week meet at Los Alamitos, where Thursday racing was canceled because of the lack of horses.

 

“Three-day weeks are difficult for people who make a living in this game,” Robbins said. “We have an allegiance to those people in trying to make this work. But we’re going to run fewer races on certain days. You’re not going to see 10 races all the time. It’s one day at a time.”

 

Bettors have certainly noticed. The dwindling field sizes have robbed southern California races of their value and cut handles noticeably. Too many horses that ought to be 10-1 are instead 4-1. Favorites are so short-priced that overseas bettors would call them unbackable. Last Saturday’s Los Alamitos Derby, a Grade 3 race with $150,000 on offer, had all of four horses start. Four.

 

For now Robbins predicted seven races a day on Wednesday, Thursdays and Fridays, nine on Saturdays and eight on Sundays. “We’re having to make adjustments on the fly,” he said. “There’s certainly been some instability in southern California. We really have to be realistic with what we’re working with right now. We’re just trying to get back to where we were.”

 

Racing news and opinions

 

Banned late in the troubled Santa Anita meet, Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer is not without a presence at Del Mar. Five of his horses were among the entries over the first four days of the meet, all entered under the name of his assistant Dan Ward. The Stronach Group threw Hollendorfer and his horses out of all its tracks after six of them were euthanized after track injuries at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields. Del Mar voluntarily honored the ban and applied it to its racetrack this summer, leading Hollendorfer and the California Thoroughbred Trainers to file a formal complaint this week in San Diego Superior Court. A judge there said he would decide next Friday on a request for a temporary restraining order that would presumably let Hollendorfer in. “We’ve been having a lot of communication – our group – along with Jerry and his lawyers and Dan,” Robbins said. “We hope there is some resolution. It's not just a Del Mar issue; it’s a Santa Anita issue, of course. Naturally, that’s where it all started. Jerry is a wonderful guy, and he’s been supportive of California for a lot of years. Hopefully things will work out down the road. Other than that I can’t really say anything.”

 

Add Hollendorfer: Only days before the opening of the summer season, Del Mar’s media guides arrived in the mail. Guess who is pictured prominently on the cover of the source book that contains information about the track’s owners, jockeys and trainers? That’s right. Hollendorfer. No doubt printing deadlines preceded all the headlines.

 

On a Jersey Shore track with a reputation for favoring speed, it is no wonder that six of the seven 3-year-olds in the $1 million Grade 1 Haskell Invitational are early pace-setters. Disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security (8-5) drew widest for Saturday’s 5:49 p.m. EDT race at scorching hot Monmouth Park. With Luís Sáez riding for trainer Jason Servis, he suffered the first on-track loss of his career last month, finishing second at Monmouth in the $150,000 Pegasus. But that was a half-furlong shorter than the 1⅛ miles of the Haskell. Thanks to Joe Bravo’s close pursuit throughout the race, King For A Day (5-2) beat Maximum Security. This weekend he drew the rail, and trainer Todd Pletcher reunited him with his regular rider John Velázquez. Eight-time Haskell-winning trainer Bob Baffert shipped Mucho Gusto (2-1), a four-time Grade 3 winner that has been both a pace chaser as well as a front-runner in his seven races. Third in the Belmont Stakes, Joevia (10-1) might also want a piece of the early pace. But since his two wins have been in Monmouth slop, his best chance might have vanished with this weekend’s 92-degree forecast. Bettors who feel like there is too much early pace might look to Dale Romans’s colt Everfast (10-1), the only closer in the field. But since his debut win last summer at Ellis Park, he is 0-for-11 including a runner-up finish to War Of Will in the Preakness. The thinking here is that Mucho Gusto has the tactical speed to answer any pace, and that he will not let Maximum Security get away on a loose lead. My main bet will be with Mucho Gusto and Joevia in an exacta box.

 

Add Haskell: The forecast of extreme weekend heat led several eastern tracks to cancel Saturday race cards. With Saratoga among them, the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks was postponed. But track bosses at Monmouth Park insist that the Haskell show must go on. They plan to shorten post parades, push races to later in the afternoon in hopes of catching cooler air and adding water trucks to give horses cool baths if necessary right after races. The Haskell is the biggest moneymaker every year at Monmouth, so a cancellation would be economically disastrous. So, too, is the possibility of the unthinkable happening there against the backdrop of heightened awareness about the dangers of racing.

 

The only blemish on the career of the lightly raced Catalina Cruiser (1-2) was last year’s right-hand turn out of the gate in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, a move that left him to finish a distant sixth as the odds-on favorite. But that was also the only time in his six races that he was ever drawn to the outside. That will not be a problem Saturday at 6:30 p.m. EDT when he starts from the rail in the $200,000 Grade 2 San Diego Handicap, the feature race this opening week at Del Mar. Trained by John Sadler, the 5-year-old gelding was also in post position 1 when he led at every call in winning this 8½-furlong race last year. A distant second in this race in 2018, Dr. Dorr (4-1) is also back, looking for his first win in nearly 15 months for Baffert and his wife Jill, who owns the 6-year-old gelding. The wild cards in the six-horse field are a pair of 4-year-olds trained by Peter Eurton. Two-time graded-stakes winner Core Beliefs (5-1) gets blinkers added and might provide what little early speed there may be in this race. His workout partner Draft Pick (8-1) came back from a 10-month layoff to win an allowance race last month at Santa Anita. He is a big, Grade 3 winner that has been first or second in his last five races. In search of a price, I will key Draft Pick on my tickets and include Catalina Cruiser and Core Beliefs.

 

Add San Diego Handicap: Baffert had nominated McKinzie for the race and even had him training for it with Dr. Dorr. But he is instead aiming the 4-year-old colt for next month’s Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. That is where he is likely to run into last year’s Woodward winner Yoshida and Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Gunnevera. Mike Smith’s second-guessed decision to take a wide trip with McKinzie left him to finish second to Mitole in last month’s Met Mile at Belmont Park.

 

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and opening week at Del Mar share the spotlight on this week’s episode, the 100th in the series. Renowned handicapper Brad Thomas goes over each horse in the Haskell and has a few stories about his career as a horseplayer. Trainer Peter Eurton talks about Core Beliefs and the tough competition he faces Saturday in the San Diego Handicap. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher.

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