One thing’s for certain — there was nothing ho-hum about the opening week of Del Mar’s 71st racing season. There were more twists and turns and peaks and valleys than that thrilling roller-coaster ride at your favorite amusement park.
* Veteran trainer James Cassidy got off to the best start of his career at the seaside track, saddling The Usual Q.T. for a victory in Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Eddie Read Stakes and then coming back Sunday to win the $150,000 Grade 2 San Clemente Handicap with Evening Jewel. It was Cassidy’s third victory in the San Clemente and first in the Eddie Read. Cassidy also won an earlier race on the Eddie Read card, making it the first time in the 64-year-old trainer’s career that he won two races in one day at Del Mar.
* Get ready for the return of veteran jockey Patrick Valenzuela, who’s 47 now but as eager as ever to return to the Southern California circuit. The California Horse Racing Board, behind closed doors, decided Thursday to grant Valenzuela a conditional license to begin riding again in California after the board banned him for life just two years ago. Sources tell me the Del Mar stewards were not thrilled about the ruling, but like it or not P-Val will be back riding Wednesday. He’s named to ride one horse, Warrensmysterydice for trainer Jorge Gutierrez, on his first day back in the sixth race. He’s scheduled to ride in three races both Thursday and Friday, including horses for trainers like John Sadler, Doug O’Neill and Steve Knapp.
* For the second consecutive summer, jockey Tyler Baze was injured in a pre-race accident. Last August, the 27-year-old Baze fractured the little finger on his left hand when he was unseated as the horses approached the starting gate. This year, behind the starting gate, Baze’s mount in Saturday’s fifth race, Night Justice, reared up and threw his head back into the rider’s face, unseating him. The horse then stepped on Baze’s calf when he was on the ground. Vic Stauffer, Baze’s agent, said Sunday the jockey suffered several orbital fractures around his right eye and a broken nose. He’s tentatively scheduled to miss between three to eight weeks, depending on whether surgery is needed.
* Despite the fact training had to be canceled Thursday morning because of inconsistencies in the Polytrack surface through the stretch, Del Mar enjoyed a clean week of racing over its main track. There were no fatalities through the first five days of the 37-day meet, compared to four last year over the main track during the opening week. Amina, trained by Mike Mitchell, suffered a suspensory injury during the running of Thursday’s third race on the turf and had to be vanned off, but Mitchell reported later that it appears the injury is not life-threatening. There was one fatal breakdown on the turf during opening week in 2009.
* Buoyed by a record opening-day crowd of 45,309 and two huge pick-six carryovers, Del Mar’s on-track attendance showed a 2.21 percent hike through the first five days compared to last summer. But the good news stopped there for track officials as on-track handle dipped 9.31 percent and overall handle slid 9.24 percent. There were two less races during opening week this year compared to the first five days of 2009. The attendance and handle figures point out that horse racing has not lost its appeal for many fans but they just don’t have the extra money to bet because of the economy.
* Finally, the circus, err MI Developments, returned to town Thursday when the CHRB held its monthly meeting at Del Mar and hoped to hear about the company’s vision for its two race tracks — Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields. MID’s chairman, Frank Stronach, and its CEO, Dennis Mills, were not present, but they sent Santa Anita president George Haines, Golden Gate executive Robert Hartman, and corporate attorneys Frank Demarco and Scott Daruty to tell the board members they didn’t have a specific plan because they wanted assurances that any “trade secrets” they had in their plan would not be disclosed publicly. Trade secrets? If Stronach has any trade secrets, he should have come public with them years ago before the California racing industry hit a serious decline. Magna’s games are getting old … really, really old.