DEL MAR — Correct me if I’m wrong, but the highest letter grade a student can receive is an A-plus, right? Well, we’re gonna change that and give Del Mar management an A-double plus for its summer meet that ended Sunday.
The entire Del Mar team deserves as many kudos as we can deal out for what, in my opinion, is the best meet they’ve ever had in the 40-plus years I’ve been going to the track where “Where the Turf Meets the Surf.”
Let’s touch on some of the high points, of which there are many:
SAFETY COMES FIRST
Del Mar reported no catastrophic injuries for the fourth consecutive year. That’s extraordinary considering there were 2,688 starters in its 294 races during the 31-day meet. There were two sudden deaths during the morning, which is two too many, considering the love and care they receive from their grooms, trainers and owners.
It’s an unfortunate part of a sport where the equine athletes are bred to run and love what they’re doing. Track superintendent Tom Moore and John Beggin (turf course) deserve a ton of credit here.
The only word you can use to describe the full fields this summer is incredible. Fueled by record California purses of $800,000 per day, Del Mar averaged a track record 9.14 horses per race – 9.77 on the turf and 8.67 on the main track – after averaging an impressive 8.45 in 2021.
Field size, thanks to the hard work by Tom Robbins and David Jerkens in the racing office, isn’t a problem at Del Mar. The large fields helped the track average a record $18.69 million in daily betting handle. The total attendance of 278,702 was a 16.1% increase over last summer.
THE EQUINE ATHLETES
As trainer Bob Baffert put it, “Del Mar had some freaky horses there this summer.”
Let’s start with Flightline, who staged what arguably was the most spectacular show in the history of the track, winning the Pacific Classic by a record 19¼ lengths in an eye-catching 1:59.28 – just a few ticks off Candy Ride’s track record 1:59.11 while winning the 2003 Pacific Classic. He would have set the record if not geared down by jockey Flavien Prat during the final stages.
Flightline has won his five races by a combined 62¾ lengths. Cave Rock, the winner of the closing-day Del Mar Futurity, went the half-mile in a lightning-fast 43.65 seconds and still drew off to win by 5¼ lengths. He’s trained by Baffert, who also conditions another 2-year-old colt, Speed Boat Beach, who set a track record for 5½ furlongs when he won his debut in 1:01.86.
Juan Hernandez dominated the jockey standings, following up his fall meet riding title with 49 victories – 22 ahead of runner-up Umberto Rispoli. It hasn’t taken the 30-year-old Hernandez long to establish his dominance in Southern California after coming down from the northern circuit.
Another jockey who enjoyed a fantastic meet was Hector Berrios, who came to Del Mar from Florida for his second go-round in California. The 35-year-old native of Chile finished fifth in the rider standings with 18 victories and has established a foothold in some of the top barns on the circuit. Keep an eye out for this guy, who is particularly gifted on the turf and shows an amazing amount of patience on his mounts.
Two barns you don’t normally hear much about in the Southland thrived during the Del Mar meet. Andy Mathis, based in Northern California, and Dean Pederson, who now calls Southern California home, enjoyed impressive meets.
The 43-year-old Mathis, whose previous career high for victories at a Del Mar meet was six, doubled that total by winning with 29% of his 41 starters. Pederson, a 60-year-old Northern California native who professes to hate the Dodgers and Lakers, won with eight of his 12 starters. He brought 10 horses to Del Mar, lost three to claims, and starts the Los Alamitos meet with seven horses. Overall, 70 different trainers won races at Del Mar.
As you can see, negatives were tough to find during Del Mar’s 83rd summer meet. As CEO Joe Harper noted, “Just an incredible meet on all levels. All season long the racing was ultra-competitive and extremely safe.”
Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73