By: Mike Shutty - Super Screener Author
The just concluded 2013 Del Mar race meet was a winner by any measure. Every key metric (on-track handle, ADW handle, total handle, attendance, average field size) posted an increase over the statistics generated at the conclusion of the very successful 2012 meet.
With this meet now in the history books and much change ahead for the seaside oval, I had the opportunity to visit with Del Mar’s Director of Media, Mac McBride, and talk a bit about the track we all love before heading back to Chicago. We recounted the glory days of the past and explored what lies ahead for Del Mar as it continues to reinvent itself.
LITTLE KNOWN DEL MAR FACTS
When it comes to the Del Mar racetrack, no one knows it’s history and lore better than Mac, Dan Smith and the rest of the media team. While most of us know that Bing Crosby and his cronies founded the Del Mar race track and opened its gates in 1937, Mac shared some other historical facts that I thought you would find quite interesting.
For example, did you know that the very first photo finish camera was installed at Del Mar? As the story goes, Bing Crosby, entertainer and entrepreneur, was part of Paramount Studios at the time he launched the first race meet at Del Mar. It was there that he was introduced to Lorenzo del Riccio an Italian immigrant who worked in the photo lab at Paramount.
Traditionally, at every racetrack at the time, the close finishes at the wire were determined by a panel of three judges that would “eyeball” the outcome and then come to consensus on the order of finish. You can imagine the riots that would break out in the stands when errors in judgment were apparent.
Looking to avoid this mayhem at his track, Bing enlisted Lorenzo’s help in figuring out a way to use photography to capture not just the winner of the race but of all those runners that would pass under the wire. After much experimentation, Lorenzo del Riccio arrived at a solution that became the photo finish camera. Within a few years, every major racetrack in the America adopted this technology.
Innovation became a hallmark of the Del Mar experience and Bing was always behind the passion for progress. At that time, every Saturday the world stopped to listen to Bing Crosby’s ever-popular radio program. To put Del Mar permanently on the map, he and his partner, Pat O’Brien jumped at the chance to stage a match race between Charles S. Howard’s legendary, Seabiscuit and the classy Argentinian champion, Ligaroti. So, they brought the production crew down from Hollywood to broadcast the proceedings live to a nationwide audience. It was a smashing success and as result of this live broadcast conducted in 1938, Del Mar was no longer the best-kept secret in Southern California.
Fast forward to just after WWII and Bing Crosby had another idea. He heard about a new invention that came out of the military. It was called the tape recorder. Up to that point in time, all his programming had been broadcast live but the idea of being able to record several programs in a single day to be broadcast on later dates was quite intriguing to Bing. After all, he would look for any reason to find more playtime, especially at Del Mar. He pitched the idea to NBC and when they grumbled and hesitated at the idea due to the “risk” in would introduce, Bing casually mentioned that the guys at CBS were quite keen on it, NBC acquiesced and the rest is history.
By the way, ever wonder why, unlike other tracks across the US, Del Mar’s first post is conducted at the relatively late hour of 2 PM? Well, in their never-ending pursuit of fun, Bing and his Hollywood buddies were known to party until dawn on race days, so traditional post times of Noon or 1 PM were just too early for this crowd. To this day, the post time remains around 2 PM with the exception of “Four ‘o clock Fridays”. Can you imagine the marathon party that would have started Thursday evening and continued into late Friday morning had the recently instituted “Four o’ clock Friday” post time been in play at that time?
As the celebrations would creep into the wee hours of the morning, Bing and his pals would begin entertaining the revelers. It was at one of these parties that people noticed the incredible comedic chemistry that existed between Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. This new found “act” became the inspiration for the now legendary “Road” films.
WHERE HAVE THE CELEBRITIES GONE?
The era of Hollywood celebrities making Del Mar their summer playground slowing dissipated throughout the ensuing decades, but the memory of this era is fully captured throughout the nooks and crannies of the Del Mar facility in the form of fascinating photos and other memorabilia.
As Mac attests, working at Del Mar is a dream job. You work hard but it never feels like work and you’ll never find a better team then all the folks that work the Del Mar meet. And, some have been working there for an incredible 30, 40 and even 50 years! As Mac quipped, “…you want to work at Del Mar?...you’ll have to wait for somebody to die first”.
WHERE THE TURF MEETS THE SURF…TWICE A YEAR
The workload for this Del Mar team is about to significantly increase as they prepare to run two race meets come the 2014 racing season. With Hollywood Park hosting a meet for the last time this Fall, Del Mar, in addition to running their traditional seven-week meet in the Summer, will also host a 5 to 6-week meet around the month of November with a likely three or four-day race schedule.
Now this presents some interesting challenges to say the least.For example, the work force that makes their second career at Del Mar during the summer meet is primarily comprised of teachers from the area schools. Other than weekend days, who will work the weekdays? In addition, while horse racing fans and core horse players are likely to comprise the on-track crowd for this second meet, Del Mar’s summer population also includes party goers from in and around the area but also those coming in from the greater Los Angeles area. Will this latter group show up? A tougher proposition when the sun sets around 5:15 PM or so that time of year.
There were only two other times in Del Mar history in which a dual meet was attempted. The first was in 1967 when a follow up six-week meet was held in the Fall with no success. The second go at a Fall meet was scheduled to run six weeks in 1980 but it was discontinued just after a just a couple of weeks.
Now, much has changed since those days to provide a better shot at success this time around. For one, the San Diego population in 1967 was about 700k. Over 3 million people make their homes in this area today. Second, on-line wagering didn’t exist at either of those points in history so, with top Fall racing at Del Mar, all sources handle is expected to support strong numbers. Lastly, this time around, Del Mar will not be competing with other thoroughbred meets in the Southern California region as it replaces dates traditionally held by Hollywood Park.
Weather? No problem, best weather of the year happens in October and November. NFL Football on Sunday’s? Got it covered…games on televisions screens throughout the plant just like other Fall-based race track meets do to accommodate football fans.
As Mac indicates, “There are a lot of “X” factors in play here. With things like this, usually, there is only way to go…just do it! Run it, do it, give it your best shot going in and see what happens…adjust on the fly, improve and we will.”
BREEDERS’ CUP IN DEL MAR’S FUTURE?
There is also more incentive to drive a successful Fall meet this time around as it is no secret that Del Mar would like to host a future Breeders’ Cup event. Given that pursuit, Mac reports that the planned reconstruction of the old turf course commences immediately with the new turf course being in place by the beginning of 2014.
According to Mac, the racing world will relish the new turf course as it will be comprised of a softer, more forgiving grass and soil combination and those wicked tight turns (especially that turn out of the chute) will be gone forever. In addition, the turf course will be able to easily accommodate 14 horses versus the current limit of 10 horses (and 8 horses for turf sprint races). Also, instead of the current three rail positions, the new turf course will now boast as many as six rail settings which guarantees a lush, green turf racing surface every day for both race meets.
POLYTRACK OR DIRT?
What about the Polytrack surface? Will it remain in place or will a bid to host the Breeders’ Cup provide additional pressure to make the switch to dirt? According to Mac, “In this business, everything is always on the table”. He was quick to point out several reasons why Polytrack might be here to stay. For example, in this meet just concluded (which featured 329 races run over 37 days) Del Mar lost only 1 horse during its races on the main course…an incredibly positive outcome any way you measure it.
Given that Del Mar is owned by the State of California, there are other considerations to overcome that a privately owned race facility would not face. For example, if Frank Stronach wants to change the Santa Anita racing surface to dirt, then as a private owner, he can do that (with racing board approval). Not the case for Del Mar, however. The process of working with the state in filing, supporting and winning eventual approval for a change in the racing surface is a long and arduous one. For example, the approved turf course alterations in progress now were first discussed five years ago.
Then there’s the money consideration for a state that, to say the least, is up against it financially speaking. Think about it, the state just anted up to make the turf course renovations possible. Now, they would be approached with another request that despite granting $10 million back in 2007 to make the switch to Polytrack, “X” millions will be required to fund the switch back to dirt. I would imagine the response from the state to be something like…say what?
So, with the Breeders’ Cup or not, one thing is certain, Del Mar will have a world class, premier turf course that will draw interest from horsemen around the country (and the world, for that matter) only adding to growing average field size accomplished these past few years.
As for the Polytrack vs. a dirt main track debate, it will continue in earnest as Bing Crosby’s legacy of innovation at Del Mar will likely play a role in the final outcome. There’s a lot up in the air for California racing in 2014 and 2015…an experimental time to say the least. For now, we’ll look forward to an exciting 2014 twin meet, one for which the traditional theme song played before the first race and after the last race may have to be altered slightly to reflect…“where the NEW turf meets the surf, at Del Mar.”
Go Fast and Win!