Heaven by the Pacific
by James Scully
Del Mar is a state of mind on the Southern California racing
circuit. Well situated near the popular beaches of La Jolla with
plenty of fine dining, shopping and other local enticements, the
venerable oval serves as a vacation hotspot for owners and racing
fans as well as a getaway from the daily grind up north for
backstretch and track employees. Top-class racing is synonymous
with the Del Mar experience.
Bing Crosby helped found the track in 1937 and Del Mar quickly
became known for its relaxing atmosphere and celebrity appeal.
Jimmy Durante became such a regular that the turf course was
named after him. Seabiscuit added to the early history with his
famous match race against Ligaroti in 1938. Spotting his rival 15
pounds (130-115), Seabiscuit got up to win by a nose and went on
to defeat War Admiral 2 1/2 months later. He earned his only
Horse of the Year title that season.
The legendary Bill Shoemaker is a bigger part of Del Mar’s
history. An apprentice rider in 1949, the Texas native made his
first appearance where the “Turf meets the Surf” that
year and promptly won the riding title with 52 wins. Shoemaker
squared off against veteran jockey Johnny Longden (of Count Fleet
fame) the following season and the eventual Hall of Famers dueled
throughout the meet before winding up in a tie with 60 wins each.
Shoemaker was the leading rider the next four seasons, capping
his six-year stretch with an amazing 94 triumphs in 1954, a
record that may never be touched. Only Laffit Pincay Jr., who
still fell eight short with 86 in 1976, has come close. Pincay
has won more overall races at Del Mar than any other jockey.
Shoemaker moved his tack east for 15 years in 1955, but
Longden remained a fixture, becoming the all-time leading rider
in Thoroughbred history at Del Mar in 1956. When Shoemaker
returned to Del Mar in 1970, he was in hot pursuit of Longden’s
mark and eclipsed his former rival on September 7 when guiding
the juvenile filly Dares J to the wire first for his 6,033rd win.
He led all jockeys with 55 wins that meet.
The Ferrell Jones Award goes to the leading trainer each meet
and is named in honor of the conditioner who won races in droves
during the 1960s. Jones captured a record 11 training titles at
the seaside track, winning seven straight from 1960-66.
Charlie Whittingham was the leading trainer in 1972, and Bobby
Frankel won four straight titles, and five of six overall, during
the mid-to-late 70s. Both conditioners have been an integral part
of Del Mar’s history. Whittingham saddled his first stakes winner
in 1961 and wound up with a record 73 stakes victories. Frankel
has won the centerpiece event, the $1 Pacific Classic (G1), six
The 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic, which will be run for the 14th
time this year, has been dominated by Frankel since its inception.
He won four straight beginning in 1992 and two in a row recently
with Skimming (2001-02). He just missed with last year’s runner-up,
Medaglia d’Oro, and owns a couple of other top three finishes.
Bob Baffert, who will be seeking a record eighth straight
training title this season, is the current king of Del Mar. The
silver-haired, sunglass-wearing Arizonian has won at a high
percentage and crushed the competition over the past seven years.
There’s no reason to expect a change at the top in 2004.
Following a slow Hollywood meet, Baffert arrives at Del Mar with
a barn loaded with quality stakes runners and two-year-olds.
Fast and firm conditions are the rule at the picturesque
setting, which has gone more than 10 years without an off main
track, and Del Mar has been the nation’s best track in terms of
daily average attendance and handle since the early 1990s.
This year’s meet will feature the return of Pleasantly Perfect
(Pleasant Colony), who is unraced since capturing the Dubai World
Cup (UAE-G1) in a gutsy performance over Medaglia d’Oro. The six-year-old
is being pointed toward the Pacific Classic and will have the
perfect opportunity to debunk the silly notion of a “Dubai
Jinx,” which applies some mysterious force upon horses who
traveled to Dubai.
Horses have been shipping back and forth across the Atlantic
Ocean for decades and maintaining their form, and Pleasantly
Perfect has the services of one of the world’s leading
conditioners, Richard Mandella. Look for the $6.6 million earner
to come back strong at Del Mar. Pleasantly Perfect doesn’t have
many races left in his career but could run twice during the
meet, using the August 1 San Diego H. (G2) as a prep for the
A total of 19 graded events, including six Grade 1s, are
scheduled this year and the stakes fare gets off to a fast start
with the John C. Mabee H. (G1) and Eddie Read H. (G1), both
important turf tests, taking place this weekend.
Wednesday’s opener is an exciting time. It kicks off 43 days
of great racing action in the most enjoyable setting the sport
has to offer.