Here are a few of the highlights concerning the opening week of Del Mar’s 72nd season:
* Victor Espinoza’s spill in Sunday’s ninth race could have been a lot worse than it turned out. Espinoza was down for quite a while after his mount, Be Driven, broke her left front leg and went down, causing a chain reaction that led to two other horses falling. Be Driven had to be euthanized, the other two jockeys involved — Joel Rosario and Martin Pedroza — were OK and both of the other horses checked out OK with the veterinarian. X-ray of Espinoza’s ankle at Scripps Encinitas Hospital were negative and his agent, Brad Pegram, said he’ll most likely be back in action Wednesday. The fatal injury was the first during racing at this Del Meet meet and the second overall. A horse was injured during training on Friday, July 15, and had to be euthanized. Last summer’s catastrophic numbers at Del Mar were positive. While no one likes to see any of the horses get seriously injured, the fact Del Mar had only five fatalities during 37 days of racing was impressive.
* In a blow to the nation’s older handicap division, trainer Bob Baffert announced Hollywood Gold Cup winner First Dude has a career-ending tendon injury to his front left leg. He also confirmed that Game On Dude, who won the Santa Anita Handicap in March, would run in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 28. I’m not sure that Game On Dude’s running style is conducive to Del Mar’s Polytrack, though. He’s more of a front-runner and, while speed was king over Santa Anita’s new dirt track and played fine on Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track, it might not be as effective on Del Mar’s synthetic. If there are any top handicap horses back east that like synthetics — think Student Council in 2007 and Go Between in 2008 — their connections would be wise to consider the Pacific Classic, especially since they’d receive $1,000 for just entering the starting gate as part of Del Mar’s new “Ship and Win” program.
* The track’s three new betting propositions — the pick five, the head-to-head wager and the $50,000 seeded pick six — got off to nice starts. The pick five is as popular as it was at Hollywood Park, where it debuted, and the head-to-head wager, matching Caracortado against Acclamation in Saturday’s Grade I Eddie Read Stakes, had a pool of $31,413. Del Mar’s marketing director, Craig Dado, told the Daily Racing Form he was hoping for a pool of about $40,000, but still not a bad debut for a wager a lot of fans probably don’t even know about yet or find hard to understand. Caracortado went postward at 1-2 in the new head-to-head wager while Acclamation was 7-5. You won if your selection outfinished the other horse, no matter where they finished in the race. The seeded pick six, which adds an extra $50,000 to the pool on Sundays when there is no carryover, is the reason Wednesday’s pick six carryover is so huge. If there was no seeded pick six money involved, the carryover would be $189,490 instead of the $239,490 bettors will take a crack at on Wednesday.
* Del Mar CEO Joe Harper, like many others in the industry, wants to see the takeout lowered in California. The Thoroughbred Owners of California, the main roadblock to a lowering of the takeout, likes to point out that the takeout on win-place-show wagering in California is among the lowest in the country. True enough, but check the handle figures and you’ll see that the majority of money at a racetrack is bet on the exotics — the pick six, pick five, pick fours, pick threes, daily doubles, etc. Many bettors are looking for that big score that can earn them lots more dollars than a $10 win bet on a 2-1 shot in the sixth race. Reader and longtime horseplayer Andy Asaro came up with a good example between Saratoga and Del Mar this past weekend. On Saturay, Saratoga, which has an 18.5 percent takeout on exactas, handled $5.6 million in exacta pools on an 11-race card. Del Mar on the other hand, which has a 22.68 percent takeout on exactas as part of California’s new bill that went into effect this year, handled a little more than $2 million in the exacta pools on a 10-race card. He also reported the daily double pools were much larger at Saratoga than Del Mar, where again the takeout rates are much lower in New York. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
* Rafael Bejarano is off to a strong start, riding nine winners during the first week to open a 9-5 edge over Garrett Gomez and Joe Talamo in the rider standings. Bejarano lost the Del Mar jockey chase to Joel Rosario in the last race of the meet last summer and it looks like he’s determined to win it all this year. Chantal Sutherland, who’ll become the first woman to ride in the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic in the same year if Game On Dude makes it to Del Mar’s signature race this summer, has three wins so far.
* There have been 46 claims during the first five days of the meet, including 16 on opening day and 14 on Friday night. Doug O’Neill leads the way with five claims and Mike Mitchell has four. There were six horses claimed out of Friday night’s sixth race alone, and there was a 19-way shake for Veillit’ — a 4-year-old filly who eventually went to trainer Dean Greenman’s barn after finishing sixth as the even-money favorite in Friday’s third race for $8,000 claimers.