Our favorite part of the year is upon us with the turf meeting the surf for the 72nd season of racing paradise at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
For both the casual and hard core fan, no place in the world can match the atmosphere for 37 days at the seaside oval with its scenic back drop of the Pacific Ocean providing an ideal climate, diverse crowds dressed to impress enjoying their day to the fullest and world-class thoroughbred horse racing.
Show Me the Money
It’s top-notch for the horseman as well, with 31 major stakes races worth over $7 million highlighted by the 21st running of the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic, the most lucrative race of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Program.
The purse money being offered is massive, with an average of over $550,000 per day. Some of the highlights are third-level and money allowances at $75,000, first-level allowances at $65,000, maiden special weights at $63,000 (plus potential California-bred bonuses) and bottom-level $8,000 claimers running for $20,000.
Del Mar will offer a guaranteed $50,000 Pick 6 carryover into each Sunday program and a head-to-head wager every Saturday with a 10% takeout.
Piggybacking on the overwhelming success of the Pick 5 wager that was introduced at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meet, Del Mar will also offer the bet over the first five races. Pools eclipsing $100,000 that were the norm at Hollywood Park will continue with just the 14% takeout and it would be no surprise to see multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars wagered on some days.
A single Pick 4 will be offered every day over the final four races with pools sure to exceed $500,000 on many occasions.
This bet has become my specialty with analysis and selections having been made available every racing day in Southern California at www.pick4blog.com. With documented earnings of over $4,400 in 2011, the success is sure to continue and you can join me for less than $1 a day by subscribing here to receive my plays directly to your e-mail.
As a special bonus for subscribers, I will also provide a Pick 5 play, which in effect gives subscribers full-card analysis every day. My Best Best and daily preview will still be available for free at www.pick4blog.com.
I will be hosting Del Mar’s handicapping seminar prior to the races on August 6 at 12:45 p.m., so make sure to get to the track early so I can share some winners with you outside the Seaside Terrace near the top of the stretch.
No Zenyatta, No Problem
After getting spoiled with the presence of Queen Zenyatta winning the Clement L. Hirsch (Grade I) the past three years, we look to a bevy of other equines with championship aspirations to carry the torch.
Another lady with a similar last-to-first closing style could very well evoke similar emotions from racing fans.
Blind Luck has raced only twice at Del Mar and not since a second place finish in the Darley Debutante (Grade I) in 2009, but after notching her 12th career win in the Delaware Handicap (Grade II) this past weekend she could be pointed to the Hirsch on August 6. The four-year-old daughter of Pollard’s Vision has earned nearly $3.3 million in her career while finishing in the money in all 21 starts.
The aforementioned Pacific Classic is likely to produce a rematch for Bob Baffert’s Dudes (First and Game On), who were separated by a nose in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and John Sadler’s Twirling Candy, who finished a neck back in third. It’s always interesting to see what big names come in from out of town to compete in one of racing’s richest races.
One of the best sprinters in the land is on hand, with Smiling Tiger looking to defend his title in the Bing Crosby Stakes (Grade I) on July 31. The four-year-old son of Hold That Tiger also finished third in last year’s Pat O’Brien (Grade II) and has earned over $1.1 million while winning half of his 16 starts, including an explosive four-length win in the Triple Bend (Grade I) at Hollywood Park in his last start.
A perfect 3-for-3 to start his career after winning the Hollywood Juvenile Championship (Grade III) yesterday, Majestic City is the likely favorite for the Best Pal (Grade II) on August 7. The two-year-old son of City Zip is the leader of his division, but new shooters set to make their debuts are likely to provide some stiff competition.
One potential threat is Baffert’s two-year-old Friends Lake colt owned by Summit Racing and Mike Shustek that is set to make his debut some time during the Del Mar meet. You can get a sneak peek at this potential star here.
Another baby to watch towards the second half of the meet is a son of Forest Wildcat named First Time John from the barn of Craig Dollase.
All three two-year-olds were purchased by the keen eye of TVG analyst and bloodstock consultant Nick Hines at OBS earlier this year.
While one of the most difficult parts of horse racing is the short amount of time we get to enjoy the athletes, the flip side to that is the anticipation for the potential to see the next super star with each debut on the track. Keep your eyes open to every maiden race run because you never know when a performance will pop your orbitals.
Conditioning the Equine Stars
In his 35th season of training, Mike Mitchell’s 429 victories leave him just five shy of Ron McAnally for the most wins ever at Del Mar. Coming off a Hollywood Park meet that saw him win with over 40% of his starters, Mitchell is likely to become the leading trainer in Del Mar history in 2011.
But, McAnally won’t go down without a fight. He is still in operation with a small stable including All Star Heart, who was an impressive allowance winner in his last start routing on Hollywood Park’s turf course.
Baffert is 70 wins shy of Mitchell, good for fourth on the all-time rankings. After winning seven straight training titles from 1997-2003, Baffert has failed to finish on top over the subsequent seven years. Although he cold-watered himself recently by saying he expects his remarkable 2011 campaign to slow down, don’t let that fool you. He is loaded and will surely add to his all-time high 90 stakes wins at Del Mar.
Doug O’Neill has become the King of Del Mar, capturing four of the last seven training titles. He has struggled so far in 2011 winning with just 15% of his starters and less than that at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meet, but the ocean air could put the pep back in the step of his stock.
In a savvy maneuver to help bring new horse flesh to the grounds, Del Mar’s racing office has implemented a new Ship and Win program, which gives horses who made their last start outside of California a $1,000 appearance fee plus a 20% bonus on purses earned in their first start at the meet.
Three conditioners have decided to take full advantage of this promotion, with Dallas Keen, who ranks fourth all-time at Lone Star Park shipping in from Texas, Vann Belvoir, a leading trainer at Emerald Downs in Washington sending a string, and Leonard Espinoza relocating some equine athletes from SunRay Park in New Mexico.
Espinoza is winless with 100 starters on the year that have earned just $27,888, which means he will nearly quadruple his average earnings per starter just by getting his horses to the starting gate.
Top Gun Pilots
The jockey colony is packed with stars once again with a formidable group looking to snap Joel Rosario’s two-year reign at the top of the standings.
Over the past four years, every major riding title in Southern California has been won by either Rosario or Rafael Bejarano, who was leading rider at Del Mar in 2008 and the runner-up last year finishing with 56 wins, just one behind Rosario.
Only 30 years separates the elder statesman of the colony, Patrick Valenzuela, and the new apprentice on the block, Eswan Flores.
The 48-year-old Valenzuela won his first riding title at Del Mar in 1986 and then won twice in back-to back years from both 1990-91 and 2002-03. After well-publicized struggles with chemical dependency throughout most of his career, Valenzuela made his return to Southern California at Del Mar last year and remarkably finished third in the standings with 29 wins. His 729 career wins at Del Mar leads all active jockeys and ranks fourth all-time.
Having yet to graduate from high school, the 18-year-old Flores emerged on the scene over the final couple of weeks of the Hollywood Park meet after becoming a mainstay riding quarter horses at Los Alamitos.
With a pair of wins already under his belt and an uncanny polish on horse back for his age, his agent Derek Lawson has become the most popular man on the back side with the massive weight break his client brings to the starting gate. Until he reaches his fifth win Flores will ride with a ten-pound allowance and then it will drop to seven pounds until his 45th win at which point it will settle at five pounds.
Flores will become a journeyman rider one year after notching his fifth victory.
After spending most of his summers at Saratoga recently, Garret Gomez is back as a regular, however he is still sure to ship around the country for major stakes which will make it difficult for him to notch his first riding title at Del Mar. He has won seven riding titles at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita and captured the Pacific Classic four times.
Riding the wave of Grade I success aboard Game On Dude after becoming the first female jockey to win the Santa Anita Handicap and just missing in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Chantal Sutherland will ride full-time at Del Mar for the first time instead of returning home to Toronto, Canada to ride at Woodbine. Her first win of the meet will break her maiden at Del Mar, as she has so far ridden in just three races (one in 2008 and two last year).
Along with her ex-boyfriend and Hall of Fame member Mike Smith, Sutherland will take part in a highly-anticipated Battle of the Exes match race on August 7. In 2003, Valenzuela defeated Julie Krone, who rode full-time at Del Mar for just that year, by a nose in the only other race of this kind at the seaside track.
One rider missing from this year’s festivities is Corey Nakatani, who ranks second all-time with 96 stakes wins and seventh with 614 wins overall, but has been riding at Arlington Park and will also ride at Saratoga.
What They’re Running On
The synthetic Polytrack surface that makes up the main track has been a hot button topic recently and this year promises to be no different. We’ll save the heated debate over the pros and cons of the surface for another time and hope the track plays safely throughout the meet.
The turf course is in pristine condition to get things started, which usually is conducive for front-runners to steal things. However, after a couple of weeks the course gets a tad worn and runners coming from off the pace will be at an advantage.
Cherry on Top
Every Friday evening after the races offers an exciting band, but the headliners come on a pair of Saturdays. Weezer returns on August 6 after making their first visit last year, and legendary performer Ben Harper makes his debut at Del Mar during Labor Day weekend on September 4 for what promises to be a memorable evening of jams. Both shows will take place on the new Seaside Stage overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
A new bonus for owners after their trip to the winner’s circle is a stop at the winner’s bar on the fifth floor to bask in the glory of their victory while enjoying a bottle of Chandon Champagne along with a bottle of super-premium Woodford Reserve bourbon. This added touch prolongs the winning experience for owners instead of the party being over after getting their picture taken.
For the first time, the Del Mar Mobile app brings everything you need to your smart phone including the ability to wager. No more waiting in long lines to get your bets in, but hopefully no betting at the top of the stretch either … until and if we get in-race wagering for future meets.
Make sure to follow me on Twitter @mdoche for much more and visit www.pick4blog.com for daily selections and analysis!
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