The trip to Del Mar, the latest stop on the 1995 McChump Racing Tour, got started out auspiciously enough.
On the flight to San Diego I got to catch up on some reading, and noted to my satisfaction that the maligned Layton Hill had followed up his recent 2nd with a win in his next outing at Del Mar, a CLM20000 event in which he was taken by trainer Mike Mitchell. I also noted that another graduate of the Arizona racing circuit, Hayden Lake, had also won at Del Mar, the same week, for CLM10000. Hooray for the cheap horses! Finally, I found additional cause for good spirits in a totally insane letter to the Bloodhorse editors in which the author attempted to make the point that a terrible country like America that would give Baby Richard back to his biological parents should take a lesson from the sheer democracy of the mutuel pools. At least I think that was the point.
Things only got brighter when I got off the plane early Saturday morning and McChump #2 informed me that a spectator had jumped the fence at Del Mar two days before and raced down the track in front of the horses, in an attempt to commit suicide. How outstanding! I was sure this was going to be a good trip now!
We had a leisurely Mexican breakfast in a small Del Mar cafe, and then spent an hour or so handicapping in a park overlooking the beach and the surfers. I was told that 80 degrees made it hot that day by San Diego standards, but after this miserable hot summer in Illinois, the ocean breeze and relatively humidity free air was a cool treat for me.
At first sight, the Del Mar racetrack is indeed impressive, what with the fairgrounds facilities and all. The track grandstand structure itself, especially the backside overlooking the paddock, is beautiful - tan stucco, and tiled roofs everywhere, a terraced Spanish style construction with lots of small balconies for people to view the paddock from, all sporting an impressive array of flowers, a clock tower that is muy, muy groovy, and a very pretty paddock. Much different from the modern glass and marble of Arlington, and a far cry from the battleship superstructure of Sportsmans. And a mariachi band playing as we entered. Ole!
But as we got closer and closer to actually being *inside* I slowly came to the realization that I was entering every racing fan's nightmare - The Racetrack of High Prices. $3 parking. $6 clubhouse admission. $1.50 for the little programs; $2 for expanded. $3.25 DRF's. $3.75 small beers. $4.25 large beers. $5 sandwiches. Some ridiculous price for hotdogs which I did not buy because I was warned off them - "super sodium dogs". Hamburgers in the $4 range. Etc. In other words, everything anyone on this list has ever complained about. And oh yeah - no free seating anywhere on the clubhouse side, and only one small free grandstand section, with the rest of the freebies being out in the sun. Not even much of an apron to walk around on, clubhouse side, and even if you could, the track is a little above the apron, so you end up staring right at the rail, eye level. Not a good spot to watch from, at all. At first, all these things were small aggravations, and well worth the price of admission to one of the premier meets of American racing. But as the weekend went on, the aggravation built up.
And some other things bugged me, too:
-Stoopers - geez they got a ton of them.
-Security guards - man these guys are everywhere they're in your face they're in your hair. And in your way. I much prefer the less obtrusive types who stay in the background - like at every other track I've been to.
-The gate crew - maybe it was just naughty horse weekend or something, but I've never seen so much trouble getting horses into the gate in so many races.
-Betting machines - not nearly enough, and what there were kept jamming, going out of order, or eating tickets. And muy muy bozos trying to use the ones there were, who had no clue.
-Maiden races - too many. 3 each weekend day. Maybe other people like maidens, but they're not my favorites. At least they were 2 & 3yo maidens.
-Simulcast race facilities - nearly non-existent. On Saturday special wagering on the Alabama from Saratoga was offered. Could you find a monitor dedicated to showing Saratoga odds or anything? Nope. Finally, by race time, there was one count 'em one TV on the 3rd level showing the race. I totally didn't bother with the Ballerina the next day. And the track program listed the cards from a couple of the California fair meets. Nowhere did I see any monitors showing those races. But I didn't ask, either.
-Turf and Surf - The turf does *not* meet the surf. This one really cheesed me off. You have to go to the upper levels of the grandstand end to even see the ocean. You fly 2000 miles to see the place where The Surf Meets the Turf and it doesn't. That Bing's a liar!
Enough whining. Things I liked:
-Employees - generally friendly and helpful. Since I was mostly using machines I cannot estimate the Surly Teller Quotient.
-Video replay library - good and quick. We had a great time calling up Thursday's race #8 and watching the original call, stretch run replay, and head on replay of the goon jumping on the track and running in front of the horses. In our expert opinion there was no suicide intent.
-Quinellas - on every race, generally paying much better than the $1 exactas. People like these things. Pay attention, Chicago tracks! Every race!
-Jockey photo wall of fame - Pat Valenzuela.
-The infield - taking the tunnel from the grandstand side out to the Del Mar infield is quite an experience. You can't see much of any race, but you can get right up next to the backstretch of the turf course and watch the horses come thundering by. But the party ambience in the infield is the thing, and it's a lot of fun. Plus the infield yielded up the only food value play of the weekend, a $3.95 Philly cheese steak that was quite good. BTW - Philly cheese steaks seem to be real big in the San Diego area.
-The horses - they had some real nice ones, that's for sure.
-Tank and halter top factor - outstanding.
-People who thought they were movie stars but really weren't - lots of 'em, and good for mucho entertainment.
-Schmoozin' with the big boys - Burt Bacharach brushed past us on the way to the Large Transactions window. Bobbie Frankel came out to watch a race replay on *our TV* (just off the Woulda Coulda Shoulda bar). We stopped by and asked Jenine Sahadi what she'd done to turn Layton Hill around. She just laughed and said "He was a lot of work". Ron McNally walked by us without even looking twice. Nice Jacket. Ahhhh ... to share in the light surrounding greatness.
-Free hats - yep we got free Pacific Classic hats for being one of the first million or so patrons.
The Classic - We got a great spot by the paddock and got a good view of the horses (that is, as good as we could get through the 200 or so connections - of 6 horses - who jammed the paddock). John Mabee was looking quite dapper. Concern is a smallish horse, and looked rather uninterested and not at all well muscled up. He looked like a beatable 6/5 fave. Tinner's Way was awesome in the paddock, big, and sharp, and well muscled. Soul of the Matter wasn't far behind, with as nice a healthy sheen to him as I've ever seen on a horse. I played Tinner's to win, and my buddy played Soul with an added Tinner's/Soul exacta box. All paddock inspection - it does work. Well, that coupled with having tossed two of the other three horses earlier.
Our Betting - Winning the Classic didn't make us rich of course. By the end of Sunday I was down $70 for the weekend and McChump #2 was worse. He got a little healthy with a big win bet on Track Gal to beat Lakeway, but by the time Sunday's 10th, and our final, race rolled around we were desperate. I took my voucher to the machine with the intent of either scoring big or walking out with a voucher so small it would only interest a guy I know from the Internet who likes to mail mail tiny vouchers (10 cents, 20 cents) to tracks for reimbursement (!). I boxed some horses I liked in a quinella and then dumped what was left on a 10-1 longshot being ridden by Gary Stevens. My buddy boxed that same longshot up with a couple other horses in an exacta. The race went off and our horse, the 8, was locked up in a speed duel on the front end of a route. "Too fast", we were saying, and "Too fast" from everyone around. But Stevens took the horse home, a photo produced one of my buddy's horses in 2nd. I left Del Mar with 1.5 times as much (betting) money as I'd brought. And I left in a much happier mood.
Bottom line on Del Mar:
-It's pretty, but I think there's prettier. Paddock area is definitely the best ever, though.
-Better horses than I normally see, of course, but I don't really know how much difference there is between handicapping $80,000 claimers and $20,000 claimers.
-Definitely great jockeys, especially Stevens & Nakatani.
-Everything costs A Lot.
-Some aspects of operations leave something to be desired.
All in all I rate it above average, but certainly not this wonderful something that I expected, which I'm not even sure what that was - maybe the Land of Oz or something. I guess if you're rich and famous and can go to Del Mar for the whole season and get into the whole social scene it might be something special. Our social scene was a Saturday eve trip to the much touted Belly Up bar only to find it was Big Band music night and the cover was $7.50 - hardly inspiring a desire to return. I don't think I would spend the money to fly across country to do it again. Nice place to visit, once.
At least we got free hats.
They were kinda small, though.