Training fields

Del Mar’s opening day features sold-out booths and maxed out fields

Del Mar opens its 83rd racing season Friday with bolstered purses, the usual sold-out crowd on opening day and a sold-out field of 14 for the first feature of the meet: the Oceanside Stakes.

Mackinnon leads a field of 14 colts in the Oceanside Stakes on Friday, Del Mar’s traditional opening day. The seaside track opens its 31-day competition on Friday. (Image: Benedict Photo)

Lost to history and time, the seaside runway’s Hollywood flavor was enjoyed from the moment Bing Crosby picked up the first fan ticket when the runway opened in 1937. Gone are the days when Crosby, Desi Arnaz (who owned a house near the track), Pat O’Brien, Mickey Rooney, Betty Grable, WC Fields, Ava Gardner and Jimmy Durante held court for the paparazzi of their time. Durante was such a presence that the grass course now bears his name.

No matter. As Saratoga is for east coast riders and fans, Del Mar is for west coast fans, just yards from the Pacific Ocean. The sold-out crowd is limited to around 22,000, due to COVID restrictions.

That’s not counting the skydivers diving as part of the opening day festivities. These festivities inaugurate a 31-day meeting with 34 stake races with a record $8,275,000 in purses.

Solid field sizes are a boon for punters

Two of the six first-year students on the 2022 calendar benefit from scholarship increases. These are the six Bing Crosby Stakes stadiums and the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes fillies and mares turf road. Both climb $300,000 to $400,000.

In total, the Del Mar stock market jumped collectively by $825,000. Track officials said that means the track’s black-type stakes — the unranked stakes — get an almost 10% boost.

Field size also gets a boost. Del Mar averaged nearly 10 horses per race last year, more than Saratoga. Friday’s competition opener averages 11. It would offer more, as 124 entries have piled up in Race Secretary David Jerkens’ office. But for security reasons, this 10-race opening day card is limited to 110 runners.

It’s a boost for Southern California racing, which has suffered from small fields in recent years. Jerkens and his team have worked to improve this through his Ship and Win program. This program, now in its 12th year, provides incentives for out-of-state horses that come to Del Mar. Last summer, it brought 160 invaders to Del Mar. These shippers have started 200 races.

Do you remember Mackinnon? He is back

As for Friday’s Oceanside Stakes feature, this 14-person capacity field will run one mile on the Jimmy Durante Turf course. Leading that parade is Mackinnon of Doug O’Neill, last year’s third runner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf held at this Del Mar course. He is 3 for 8, having finished second of the El Camino Real Derby 5 and a half months ago at Golden Gate Fields.

You will also see the Irish-bred Balnikhov gelding. He came to coach Phil D’Amato’s barn after going 3 for 4 in Europe. He is yet to win on this side of the Atlantic, posting a pair of seconds in stakes races: the Singletary Stakes at Santa Anita in April and the Grade 2 American Turf at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.

Last out, however, Balnikhov stumbled to a fourth out of five in the Black-Type Cinema Stakes. This went 1 1/8 miles as a 3/5 favorite, sending D’Amato back to the drawing board. He takes off the blinders and shortens Balnikhov.

Miller set to defend Del Mar practice title

Speaking of D’Amato, the Santa Anita workout champ leads another strong conditioning contingent at Del Mar. That includes Peter Miller, who won Del Mar’s last two summer titles. He’s gone 26 for 144 last year, his 18% winning percentage attesting to the competitiveness of a colony of trainers including O’Neill, Bob Baffert, Richard Mandella, John Sadler and John Shirreffs.

Miller returns after an eight-month hiatus from training. Last November, he gave himself his own “refresher”, stepping away from his barn. He returns with nine Del Mar training titles in tow.

Del Mar’s season runs until September 11. It opens with a three-day weekend map before moving on to a four-day list for the next five weeks. The penultimate week offers five days of racing ending on Labor Day. The final weekend runs from September 9-11.

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