Down at Old (And New) Del Mar

by | 07.24.2013 | 8:25am

I've been coming to Del Mar for more than 30 years, and while it lacks the racing traditions of its East Coast counterpart in Saratoga, the seaside track provides an invigorating experience each season I return. Reinvented 20 years ago in a new facility, Del Mar is about more than Thoroughbred racing and gambling: it's entertainment, from the opening day extravaganza that has become a “must do” event for San Diegans, to the Summer Concert Series that attracts a young and enthusiastic crowd, to the hippity hop races for kids, and the Sing Along With Bing daily ritual.

A day at Del Mar begins and ends with the Bing Crosby song, “Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” and despite that homage to one of the track's co-founders, Del Mar's “cool as ever” marketing campaign is modern, slick, and effective.

Naysayers suggest track president Joe Harper and his management team only have to unlock the gates to fill up the place, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Let's go back to 1987, the year before simulcasting allowed Los Angeles residents to bet on Del Mar at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park. Del Mar's opening day of 1987 drew a crowd of 29,856. That number dropped for several years, but then the reinvention began. Opening day became a “happening”: more than 40,000 people have showed up to usher in the new season for each of the last last nine years.

Del Mar used to be the laggard on the Southern California circuit, in terms of crowd sizes and purses. Today, it is the leader. That didn't happen by accident.

Paulick Report editor-in-chief Scott Jagow and I spent the first week of the 2013 meeting at Del Mar, and it was a lot of fun putting together the Del Mar Diaries video series (well, maybe not as much fun for Scott, who did the production work into the wee hours each night). We tried to convey the energy of opening day, the passion of Trevor Denman, who is calling the Del Mar races for the 30th year, the dedication of starter Gary Brinson and his hard-working team, and the creativity of marketing executive Craig Dado's Summer Concert Series that is helping build and educate the next generation of racing fans.

You can't go to the races at Del Mar and not feel some optimism for the future, despite all the problems our game has both in California and throughout the United States. It's a snapshot of something that works: appreciation for the past with an eye to the future. It's long been said that if you could bottle the energy and excitement of Del Mar and distribute it to tracks around the country, we'd be in much better shape. We tried to bottle a little of that excitement in these Diaries.

  • Patrick Kane

    I am 28 years old and graduated from the the UA RTIP program. I live across the street from Del Mar and will say that Del Mar creates an atmosphere that only Keenland meets in terms of the crowd. I have yet to take someone to Del Mar (or any racetrack) that does not instantly fall in love. Del Mar is what more racetracks should do in terms of promotions and how to attract a younger crowd. Many people in this game do not realize the need to do this.

  • David

    Marketing racing at Del Mar is to be applauded. It combines the best of what the core product has to offer with a recent, clean facility and, it allies itself with other products having equal or greater appeal. So why aren’t PARX, Aqueduct, Golden Gate, Lone Star Park, or just about
    any other track adopting similar strategy? IMO racing would be better served by cooperative ownership under a not-for-profit banner. This would allow stakeholders to share in operating risk and/or dividends in proportion to investment. Instead, about the only alliances other tracks have surround alternative gaming. Why? The answer is complicated and simple – they’re in business to make money, not to provide livelihoods and present something wholesome.

    • salthebarber

      I am not understanding the business model you are talking about here.

      • David

        See Keeneland, Del Mar and (now defunct) Oak Tree @ SA

        • salthebarber

          Do you put the NYRA in that category?

          • David

            Yes, difference only they pay (excessive) tax to the state and, if there ever was one, any bottom would be handed over as well. CD is dumped upon for acting in the interests of its owners; actually their charge is not to create and secure jobs nor (necessarily) present racing as others would see and/or absorb expenses over-and-above a fair operating budget. Just saying if the charge WERE to create direct and indirect jobs, act/present the ‘product’ in certain ways, it would be the shareholders (i.e. industry factions like breeders, sale companies, trainers, vet, jocks, etc.) would assume risk and reep benefits.

          • salthebarber

            It’s an interesting idea. It could create a more copperative environment among the stakeholders. Maybe, it will help remove the cross purposes that exist in racing.

          • LongTimeEconomist

            Unfortunately, the varied and disparate interests in racing plus the fact that it is the only sport subject to intense state-by-state regulation have always precluded that and I don’t see any way that is going to change.

          • David

            Agreed (unfortuniately)

          • LongTimeEconomist

            They were in that category and were the best in the business until the politics in NY state, including OTB, led to its eventual downfall.

        • LongTimeEconomist

          Keeneland has the considerable profits from the sales that subsidize the rest of the operation.

    • LongTimeEconomist

      Not-for-profits don’t pay dividends.

  • salthebarber

    Ray, Saratoga also reinvented themselves in the 70s (or early 80s) by changing the configuration of its facility to suit a wider audience. It was not always as popular as it is now. Saratoga promotes itself as the ‘in’ place to be in the summer as well. I see promo pieces in the Sunday papers in Boston. The community and region also is very accomodating to its racing visitors. I think sometimes it is believed the Saratoga’s success just always existed or it happened by accident.

    • Hoops and Horses

      That is true. Saratoga was NOT anywhere close to as popular as it now is back when the meet was 24 days (except for 1982 when it was 27 straight days when NYRA had to make up a ton of days lost that winter at Aqueduct), and in fact, in the early 1960s there was actually talk of closing Saratoga (though that was likely squashed by the old grandstand at Belmont Park being on the verge of collapse late in the 1962 season and condemned in early ’63 with from 1963-’67 Saratoga being the only four weeks racing in New York was not contested at Aqueduct while Belmont Park was completely rebuilt). The Saratoga meet really started to grow when it was first expanded to 30 days in 1991 and then 34 in ’94 and 36 in ’97 (when the meet also began ending on Labor Day). Before then, it was a good meet, but not with nearly the importance nor popularity it carries today.

      Del Mar was actually a minor league track (to where back in the day Tom Ainslie had the line “August killers at Del Mar are January losers at Santa Anita”) until the early 1990s with the advent of the Pacific Classic in 1991 (before that, Del Mar’s biggest race was the then-Grade 2 Eddie Read as the Del Mar Debutante and Futurity did not carry nearly the importance they do now). That meet used to be nowhere near as important as it is now, and it’s the work Del Mar management has done to make it what it is now.

  • tyler_j

    The marketing strategy and business plan needs to heavily consider the taxation and most importantly where the track fits in its local market. Balancing on track attendance and handle with simulcast handle is an equation that differs from track to track. There isn’t a solution that works as a template from one market and track to another. That said, Del Mar has done a wonderful job in several aspects covered both in this article and comments. There are others that do very will on track for the market that are in. The next few years will further change the racing game. Ohio, Woodbine and others have serious changes coming in their businesses. There seems to be a real need for experienced business minded people in the industry that can change the vision for a track and still keep a solid and productive relationship with their Horsemen in that vision.

  • Gary

    Yea, a track that’s 76 years old lacks tradition.

  • Kelsey

    I’m having my going away party at the track tomorrow, and I’m DYING to Sing With Bing… I’m on a mission…. Who may I talk to? Where do I have to go? And WHAT do I have to do to make this happen? Anything helps! Thanks

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