First racing fatility at Del Mar

Mi Rey, an 8-year-old gelding, suffered a front right leg injury at the head of the stretch in Wednesday’s third race at Del Mar, dumping jockey Rafael Bejarano. Mi Rey, trained by Doug O’Neill, had to be euthanized, becoming the first afternoon fatality of the Del Mar meet. Another horse, maiden claimer Mad for Plaid, broke down during Sunday morning training and had to be euthanized.

Bejarano, who had his streak of six consecutive SoCal riding titles snapped by Joel Rosario at the just-concluded Hollywood Park spring-summer meet, remained down on the track for quite a few minutes before being taken to first aid to get checked out. No official word yet on Bejarano’s condition.

Quick hits from opening day at Del Mar

* The first race was won from well off the pace by 10-1 long shot High Stakes Silver, bringing back memories of the first two years of Del Mar’s Polytrack surface when speed was much less effective than during the recent Hollywood Park spring-summer meet. But just when you think speed is no good here, along comes Via Zavata to post a gate-to-wire victory in the second. Guess we’re going to have to watch a few races to see how the track’s going to play this summer.

* High Stakes Silver was ridden by apprentice Christian Santiago Reyes, who has been riding well since arriving at Hollywood Park. There are some press box observers who believe he’s going to have a big Del Mar season. Victor Espinoza, who won aboard Via Zavata and finished a strong third in the Hollywood Park rider standings behind Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano, is having a nice year and could very well crack the top five here at Del Mar as well.

* Monterey Jazz, coming off an impressive victory in the Grade 2 American Handicap on July 4 at Hollywood Park in his most recent start, heads a top-flight field of eight for Saturday’s $350,000 Grade 1 Eddie Read Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the grass. Other runners entered in the 36th running of the stake include Whatsthescript, Artiste Royal, Awesome Gem, Thorn Song, Global Hunter, Dakota Phone and Richard’s Kid.

* John Sadler, second behind Doug O’Neill in the Hollywood Park spring-summer trainer standings, believes he has the horses to successfully defend his 2008 Del Mar title. “We’re looking to have a nice summer here,” said Sadler, who won his first Del Mar title last summer by easily outdistancing Mike Mitchell, 31-19. “We’ll let the horses take us where they can. We’ve brought a nice bunch down here.”

* Eoin Harty is hoping to run both Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed and 2008 Santa Anita Derby and Travers Stakes champion Colonel John in the $250,000 Grade 2 San Diego Handicap on Aug. 2. The San Diego Handicap will be Well Armed’s first start since his 14-length score in the $6 million World Cup. If they run well, Harty said he may start both in the $1 million Pacific Classic, Del Mar’s signature race, on Sept. 6. Life Is Sweet, a credible third in the $700,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 11, may try the boys again in the $250,000 San Diego Handicap.

* It took a while, but trainer Lisa Lewis’ first California stakes win was worth the wait. Lewis, who moved her stable from New York to California during Hollywood Park’s 2006 autumn meet, saddled Black Astor for a front-running victory in Sunday’s closing-day Sunset Handicap at Hollypark. “It took quite a while to get to this, but it’s very nice,” said Lewis, who added that Black Astor will probably go next in the Del Mar Handicap on Aug. 30.

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Is this the type of leadership we want?

As Del Mar prepares to begin its 70th season today and optimism — at least for a day — runs high among California horsemen, we are painfully reminded of two comments made recently by members of the California Horse Racing Board that point out how badly we need a change in attitude at the top.

Yes, I know how much owner Jerry Jamgotchian has been a thorn in their side for years now, constantly sniping and taking shots at them. There is no doubt that Mr. Jamgotchian could be a little less caustic and still get his point across, but there is also little doubt about this — he has a lot of good ideas, something even chairman John Harris admitted in a recent article in the North County Times.

But no matter how annoying Jamgotchian can be, no matter how much he buzzes around their heads like a little gnat, there was no excuse for the following comments, and they are very troubling to me.

It doesn’t even matter who said them, so we’re going to keep their names out of this, even though one of the quotes appeared in the North County Times and the author of said quote is well-known.

“I can’t speak for the board, but since he (Jamgotchian) so vocally dislikes it here, his departure is fine with me. He was never a major player here anyway.”

Here’s what’s wrong with that statement: No one owner, no matter how small or large, should be discarded when California has such a shortage in horses today. They should be coddled and encouraged to stay, rather than riducled and shown the door. I mean, these CHRB members are high-ranking officials in the industry and should be a little more thick-skinned. It’s dumbfounding to me that such a statement would be made when we need MORE owners, not less.

This next one I am going to paraphrase, because I don’t have the exact quote. One of the commissioners, when Jamgotchian sent out an e-mail to media members and a large segment of industry officials second-guessing for the umpteenth time the synthetic track mandate, took umbrage with the fact that Jamgotchian was blaming the synthetics for co-owner Jess Jackson’s decision to skip the November Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita with Rachel Alexandra.

The commissioner’s attitude? In essence he said, Who cares? We’ll still have a great Breeders’ Cup.

Well, I have no doubt we’ll have another successful Breeders’ Cup, as well. But this commissioner SHOULD care that Rachel Alexandra may not be here. I mean, she’s one of the two most popular race horses, along with Zenyatta, in America today. This state’s racing leaders and Breeders’ Cup officials should be bending over backwards to convince Jackson to send his marvelous filly out here. She’s a huge drawing card, not to mention the incredible positive media coverage — something this sport desperately needs as often as possible — a possible Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta showdown would attract.

I sure hope these two CHRB members’ thoughts are a minority view. If not, we have bigger problems than even I thought. Folks, this industry needs to come together and get this mess straightened out before it’s too late, rather than flippantly dismissing valid issues because you despise the messenger.

Hollypark Cushion Track may be fairest of them all

I’ve talked to three trainers in the past two weeks — Ron Ellis, Gary Stute and Doug O’Neill — who told me that Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track was playing more like a dirt track by the end of the 55-day meeting Sunday.

“It’s a little bit more firm and it’s not as velcro-like as Santa Anita and Del Mar can be,” said O’Neill, who returned from a 10-day Mediterranean cruise with his family Saturday night and wrapped up his fourth Hollywood Park spring-summer training title, outdistancing runner-up John Sadler 37-22 while saddling 78 more starters than his rival. Sadler saddled a meet-high seven stakes winners.

Ellis said he likes the Cushion Track better than Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride and Del Mar’s Polytrack surfaces, and O’Neill gave the Southland’s oldest synthetic track a ringing endorsement before winning Sunday’s opener with A Lil Dumaani.

“Knock on wood, we had a tremendous amount of luck training on this track,” he said. “We really didn’t have many hiccups, and that helped us start a lot of these horses two or three times throughout the meet. We were real happy with (Cushion Track), that’s for sure.

“We had a lot of starts … we were at a definite strong advantage winning a title like this because of the numbers that we run. But at the same time, hats off to the clients for investing in the horses and letting us run them as often as we do.”

Both Darrell Vienna and Jose DeLima enjoyed strong meets with small stables, winning with seven of their 25 starters — a 28 percent clip. Mike Mitchell saddled only 69 horses but finished fourth in the standings with 15 victories, a 22 percent success rate.

Jockey race at Del Mar should be humdinger

Garrett Gomez, Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano. There’s not a better trio of jockeys anywhere riding at the same race track. The 70th Del Mar meet, which begins Wednesday and runs through Sept. 9, is going to be something special, because except for the days when Gomez and/or Bejarano are out of town to ride in big stakes races, these three guys will be vying for the title that was won by Bejarano last summer.

Rosario just snapped Bejarano’s streak of six consecutive SoCal riding titles, winning the Hollywood Park spring-summer meet, 79-69. Bejarano had 73 less mounts because he spent a lot more time out of town riding in the Triple Crown races and other selected stakes. The reaction by Rosario and his agent, Vic Stauffer? Who cares. When they look back at the 2009 meet five to 10 years from now, the only thing that counts is that Rosario’s name will be atop the standings.

After all, when Bejarano joined Chris McCarron (1982-83) as the only jockeys to win six consecutive Southland titles since the Hollypark autumn meet was added in 1981,
the 27-year-old native of Peru had 151 more mounts than Gomez, who took off in early April to ride full time at Keeneland before returning to the Southland for good last month during the Hollywood Park meet.

“I thought I had a chance to win this meet,” Rosario said of Hollywood Park. “I was second last year and second at Del Mar and third at Santa Anita. You need to be a little lucky, but I thought if I tried hard it could happen.”

This will be only the second summer that Gomez, Rosario and Bejarano have ridden together at Del Mar. It should be a treat for racing fans.

Hollypark on-track attendance up slightly

Hollywood Park made it two consecutive SoCal meets that have shown an upswing in on-track attendance, however slight it may be, when the track announced on closing day Sunday that on-track crowds were up 0.8 percent for the 55-day spring-summer meet. This follows a 1 percent hike by Santa Anita for its 2008-09 winter-spring meet.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Hollypark’s on-track handle was down 9.1 percent and all-sources handle dipped 11 percent. We’re in hard economic times, folks, and a lot of people don’t have the money to be risking at the race track. They’re still going though, choosing horse racing as a means for entertainment, which is a positive for management.

There’s no doubt that Santa Anita’s Free Fridays promotion, unveiled for the first time last meeting, and Hollypark’s popular Friday night concerts after the races were a major factor in both tracks showing slight increases in on-track attendance. Now the powers that be just need to come up with additional ways to lure potential fans to the races.

According to a Hollywood Park press release, handle showed a significant increase when the track went to a four-day race week from a five-day week in mid-May because of a shortage in the horse population.

“Judging by results across the country, we feel we did OK — the best we could under the circumstances,” Hollywood Park president Jack Liebau said in the release. “We feel the move to a four-day week was the correct course of action. At the time business was off close to 20 percent and a purse cut would have been necessary had we continued to run five days a week.”

Santa Anita’s on-track handle fell 3 percent this past season, and all-sources handle was down 12 percent from a year ago.

Santa Anita’s gain in on-track attendance was the first in the Southland since the 2007 Del Mar meet, and Hollywood Park kept the streak alive. Now the pressure’s on Del Mar to see if it can give SoCal racing a hat trick.

Sport of kings needs a royal kick in the rear

I’ve got friends who think that when I cover the races at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park or Del Mar, all I do is sit around and eat, drink and bet the races. Well, they’re wrong! I don’t eat quite as much as I once did.

Yes, the tracks feed the media, make sure we don’t go thirsty and make it too easy for us to lose our money. Two of the three major SoCal racing venues — Santa Anita and Del Mar — have a pari-mutuel clerk in the press box, along with self-service betting machines. Hollywood Park pulled its pari-mutuel clerk midway through the 2008 autumn meet, but there are a couple of machines for us degenerates to use. Sometimes they can be worse than those one-armed bandits in Vegas they call slot machines.

But we also work hard, too. When the average fan is counting his or her money after the day’s final race or heading to the nearest ATM machine to recoup their losses while heading home, the writers’ work has just begun as we carefully construct our stories that are torn apart, first by our editors, and then by the readers who disagree with what we write.

There aren’t as many of us in the press box as there were, say, 10 or 15 years ago. Many daily newspapers have drastically scaled back their coverage of the sport, choosing to cut out full-graded handicaps and results charts because they feel they take up too much space in an era when the price of newsprint increases each year.

The past few years, as on-track numbers have dwindled, management has taken that as a sign that this is a dying sport, when in reality it’s a sport that has changed because of off-track betting and the advance-deposit wagering companies. I’m still waiting for those same editors to eliminate some of their baseball coverage because more than half of the major league teams this season are showing a decline in attendance.

There are still a lot of people who care about horse racing, but they choose to drive to an off-track site that is closer to home or wager from the comforts of their living room while not having to pay $8 for a carved sandwich. Let’s face it, the era of on-track crowds of 50,000 or more at race tracks have gone the way of the 25-cent candy bar. They are long gone because it’s just way too easy now to get a bet down without getting in your car and paying three bucks a gallon for gasoline just for the privilege of paying three or four dollars to park and then forking over another five or six dollars to get into the track and lose your money.

Yes, the sport is in trouble, but more so because of a lack of leadership and bad decisions than a drop in popularity. Give the fans a good show — i.e. the Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Derby, opening day at Del Mar and Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness — and the interest is still there. It’s just that with the old clientele moving on, the tracks need to do a much better job of attracting new fans to the sport. This is an industry that needs to come up with a way to make it, not only worthwhile for new fans to show up, but also for potential thoroughbred owners to buy and claim horses. Right now, it just doesn’t make economic sense.

While us writers were sitting around in the Hollypark press box this past weekend, eating all that food, drinking all those beverages and losing our fannies at the windows, we did toss around a few ideas about some of the problems that all race tracks in America — not just Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar — face today.

One of the largest, and one you don’t hear much about, is the time between races. In this day and age of instant gratification, there are many young people who don’t want to wait 30 minutes between races. They are the same people who love the NFL, NHL and NBA because of the non-stop action, but they detest the amount of time it takes between the fourth and fifth races.

They also might be dazed and confused about all these different types of wagers nowadays. I mean, it’s gotten so bad that you can almost bet on whether No. 5 in the sixth race will change leads or whether No. 4 in the eighth will be the first or last horse to return and be unsaddled.

This is a simple game, or at least it should be. During it’s heyday, horse racing had win, place and show wagering, a daily double on the first and second races and exactas in selected races. Now you can bet superfectas, super high-fives, super dupers, super scoopers. OK, maybe not the last two, but you catch my drift. Sometimes more is not better, and in this instance I agree with some of my colleagues in the press box.

I welcome your feedback. What can race tracks across America do to attract new fans? How can Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar survive, even if the industry’s kingpins don’t deliver better leadership? Is it even possible? Are editors right? Is this a sport that will fail to exist in five or 10 years? I don’t think so, but I might be wrong. What do you think?

Zenyatta voted Horse of the Meet at Hollypark

The great unbeaten mare Zenyatta, who ran her unbeaten streak to 11 with victories in the Grade 1 Vanity and Grade 2 Milady handicaps this meet, was voted Horse of the Meet in the media poll as Hollywood Park closed up shop on its 55-day summer/spring meet Sunday.

Zenyatta, scheduled to race next in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar on Aug. 9, received eight of the 10 votes. She was a unanimous choice as top older female.

Other unanimous winners included Hollywood Juvenile Championship victor Necessary Evil as 2-year-old filly, Hollywood Gold Cup champ Rail Trip as older male, Doug O’Neill as top trainer, Joel Rosario as best jockey and Christian Santiago Reyes as top apprentice jockey.

Gozzip Girl, winner of the American Oaks, was voted outstanding 3-year-old and 3-year-old filly and shared top female turf horse honors with Tuscan Evening.

Other meet winners: Necessary Evil, top 2-year-old; Classical Slew, 2-year-old male; Swaps winner Misremembered, 3-year-old male; Whittingham Handicap winner Midships, turf horse; Triple Bend winner Zensational, sprinter; and Roi Charmant, claiming horse.

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Trainers think we’ll be back at Hollypark in 2010

I’ve talked to three prominent Southland trainers today who all think there’s very little chance that racing will cease to exist at Hollywood Park after this spring-summer meet. In fact, one trainer told me he thinks we’ll be racing here for more than one or two more years.

Please check out my story in Monday’s editions of the L.A. Daily News, Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and other Los Angeles Newspaper Group publications. I think I’ve dug up some pretty good input from these guys who have been around a while and know what they’re talking about.

Riding off into the Sunset

I like Obrigado in today’s closing-day feature at Hollywood Park. He’s sharp, coming in off a 3 1/4-length victory in the Grade 3 Round Table Handicap here on June 13, he gets the services of leading rider Joel Rosario and he’s trained by Neil Drysdale, who’s quietly having a strong meet. He’s won with 20 percent of his starters after a slow Santa Anita meet.

Of course, if either Porfido or Black Astor inherits an easy lead in the 1 1/2-mile Grade 2 turf event, they could be tough to catch. Porfido, a 7-year-old Chilean-bred son of Mash One, has the most class of the two and would seem to be a bigger threat to wire this field. He’s also two for eight at the distance and David Flores knows him well, having ridden the horse in his past nine outings.

Actually, any of the four runners in this short field can win, but my top two choices are Obrigado and Spring House, who just seem to be better horses at this point than either of the other two.

The last summer shootout at Hollywood Park? Bet against it. That $2 billion price tag on the development project is going to be tough to secure in this economic climate. I’m making plans to be here for opening day next spring.