While 90% of the United States was sweltering last week, Brad Cummings and John Scheinman found one of the coolest places in America to escape to: Del Mar, Calif., for opening week of the 2011 race meeting.
Brad, my partner in the Paulick Report, and John, who we've been fortunate enough to work with on several projects, combined on a series of videos we called Del Mar Diaries, from the One and Only Truly Fabulous Hat Contest on opening day to a chat with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert about the relative merits of clip-on neckties. John tried to slip in some handicapping tips in between, and we sincerely apologize to anyone who followed his advice.
For both John – the former Turf writer for the Washington Post and co-founder of the Kentucky Confidential website that provided unique coverage of this year's Kentucky Derby – and Brad, this was their first visit to the track where the Turf Meets the Surf. One thing I've learned about Brad in the three-plus years we've worked together is that he's a quick study and cuts through the BS readily. I thought his take on Del Mar, from the perspective of a fresh pair of eyes and someone who has only been serious about the sport for a few years, might be interesting to our readers.
Now that you've had a chance to spend a little time in Del Mar, do you have a better idea why there is so much negativity surrounding California horse racing?
If they don't like watching horse racing in heaven on earth, I suppose I see their point.
What would you say to those people who are so negative?
Honestly, I wish them all the best and always feel sorry for those who choose negativity over positivity. I understand a lot of vocal horseplayers don't like the takeout increase (I assume that's the only source of their discontent) but to me field size is much more an issue and the only way in my mind to change that is through higher purses. It isn't going to happen overnight and those who say that six months into the increase lower handle is proof positive the takeout hike hasn't worked can't possibly have ever run a successful business. It may turn out that the hike will fail, but you don't build a business effectively by reacting to six-month trends. There are so many other factors at work including an overall recession across the industry. California racing is right to stay the course in my mind.
I looked at the purses and compared them to Saratoga and Del Mar seems to have the biggest purses in the country. But it will take time for the field size to follow.
For both you and John Scheinman, who worked with you on Del Mar Diaries, this was your first visit to Del Mar. What stood out about the atmosphere – and not just on opening day?
I have a confession to make: until I visited Del Mar, I really liked racing but I can't say I loved it. I can now.
The track is just gorgeous and the people running the operation from the ticket takers to the management were top notch. There are great restaurants – dare I say fine dining at its finest – in the area, and of course the location is unbelievable. While the racing is not as good as it is in Saratoga (even most of the people at Del Mar will admit that) the product is still quite good. Look out for Solar Wind and Secret Circle, a 3-year-old filly and juvenile colt respectively. Sadler and Baffert have two really strong contenders for later this year and next as long as they stay healthy. I wish I could have stayed around longer to see some of the other stars of tomorrow. If the first week was any indication, we should have some really exciting young horses running later this year.
Did I mention the weather is perfect? If anyone is hiring in the San Diego area, please let me know … for a friend of mine of course.
Could you explain the purpose of the Del Mar Diaries?
I think a justified criticism of the Paulick Report has been an unfortunate emphasis on the negative side of issues. Some of that is understandable. It hasn't exactly been the best of times for racing. But we should not lose sight of the great things our sport has to offer and meets like Del Mar are certainly among those things to celebrate. We wanted to give the entire racing community a look at the positives of the racing industry and with still a few more videos to come, I think we've accomplished that.
We also hope not to stop with Del Mar. If other tracks see the benefit of showing off their marquee meets to the horse racing world, we'll look forward to those opportunities in the future.
Finally, John Scheinman is clearly an on-camera star. I love promoting great, under-used talent and John is just that — a great talent that deserves more opportunities to schein. Get it … schein!
It seems like about 80% of the comments about California racing on the Paulick Report are about the takeout increase, and the other 20% are about synthetic surfaces. When you talked to people at Del Mar, how often did those subjects come up?
I don't want to sound trite, but I didn't hear a single conversation about takeout unless it was in a joking manner. In my ever-so-popular commentary on the subject a couple weeks ago (click here), I warned that HANA and the Players' Boycott needed to change tactics or become marginalized and across the board I'd say that marginalization is beginning to happen. Of course, they think I'm crazy and a paid shill so they probably won't hear the message. Funny enough, one person who had nothing but nice things to say about the horseplayer efforts was Lou Raffetto, the new president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California (see John's interview with him here). I hope certain folks don't look a gift horse in the mouth. He's truly a guy who is doing his job for all the right reasons.
That being said, I did overhear some horseplayers complaining about the inconsistency of the Polytrack. That's not really my wheelhouse but I'd say Del Mar would do well to figure out how to make the track more appealing to handicappers through consistency.
What were people talking about?
The horses and their bets. They were talking about the beauty of the track and how they were happy to be in California escaping the oppressive heat in Saratoga and Kentucky. They were talking about the importance of horse rescue. And they were talking about ways to improve the racing experience for all people involved. If I sound like a cheerleader, it's because I didn't have a negative moment the entire trip. Racing at Del Mar is a grand experience.
Some people think all management of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has to do to hold a successful meeting is be sure to unlock the gates and have their employees show up to work. Is that your conclusion, too?
Listen, it certainly doesn't hurt. Like I said earlier, the racetrack is spectacular. But you still have to have great management to make it work so efficiently. They were almost at capacity on Opening Day and I didn't hear one complaint about the size of the crowd or any inconveniences caused by the 46,000-plus.
Did you ever get out of Del Mar? If so, where did you go?
I had the pleasure of visiting the folks at Golden Eagle Farm and Ballena Vista Farm, both in the mountains of Ramona. Golden Eagle is obviously going through a transition but they definitely seem to have their head on straight about the direction they want to go. They're looking forward to a “quality not quantity” approach to their breeding operation. I really enjoyed meeting general manager Janine McCullough, who has some strong Kentucky roots and was kind enough to fight through a cold to meet with me.
Craig Allen gave me the grand tour at Ballena Vista and, let me tell you, that place rivals many of the farms in Kentucky. It's clear California farms have problems that you don't have in the Bluegrass – for instance, water can be much harder to come by. But the horses were in every bit as good a shape as they are in Central Kentucky. And some of the stallions I saw, Benchmark, Bertrando and Tribal Rule to name a few, were beautiful creatures.
If these two farms were any indication, there are some real bargains to be had if you're looking to take advantage of the California-bred programs in place. I look forward to getting back to California and seeing some of the other farms both in the Southern and more Northern parts of the state.
You're back in Kentucky today? What are you going to miss the most about Del Mar over the next few weeks?
The weather and the people I met and worked with all week long. A special thanks to Mac McBride, Dan Smith and Ted Buch in the press box. They more than rolled out the red carpet for us.
Also, it was a thrill to meet CEO Joe Harper. He's a real throwback guy, almost like he was plucked out of 1940s and '50s Hollywood and transplanted to 2011. Very Bing Crosby/Gene Kelly cool.
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