Five things to know about the opening at Del Mar

The Del Mar track has replaced its Polytrack surface with El Segundo dirt.

The Del Mar track has replaced its Polytrack surface with El Segundo dirt.

(Benoit Photo)

Del Mar’s summer season of horse racing starts Thursday — post time is 2 p.m. — which will be greeted by one of the biggest roars for horses this side of Churchill Downs.

Here are five story lines for what should be an exciting 40-day meeting:

Picking winners

Handicapper Jon Lindo likes horses trained by Peter Miller and Bob Hess Jr. in the opening weeks because they typically start fast at this meet.


Clocker and handicapper Toby Turrell, whose Winners card ( is the best $3 buy at the track, says the new dirt is “the wild card.”

Handicapper Bob Ike, who picked the winners of every race on a day a couple years ago, says to ignore past performances on the Polytrack at Del Mar because it’s a dirt track now. “Except for turf, we don’t know who the horses for courses are here at Del Mar,” Ike said.

Along with Miller and Hess, trainers such as John Sadler and Doug O’Neill rack up wins here year in and year out.

Getting dirty

The new dirt track — El Segundo sand replaces the old Polytrack — has received mostly good reviews, with the only negative being that it has been deep and slow the first week of workouts.

“Dirt, it’s natural,” American Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat said. “The Polytrack surface was very hard on horses’ feet. The kickback wasn’t good to breathe in for horses or jockeys. It made good horses look bad, like they were swimming with all the others. It destroyed the beauty you look for in a horse, these majestic animals, the way they move.”

New riders up

When handicapping, never overlook horses ridden by Rafael Bejarano, Tyler Baze or Joe Talamo, jockeys who typically fare well here. But new riders such as James Graham, Flavien Prat and Felipe Valdez deserve a look, too.


And there are also Hall of Famers like Mike Smith, Gary Stevens, Kent Desormeaux and Alex Solis — plus surefire future Hall of Famer Victor Espinoza, who has won five of the last six Triple Crown races.

Espinoza brought home a record seven consecutive winners here on Labor Day 2006. Drayden Van Dyke, last year’s Eclipse Award winner as apprentice of the year, is showing no signs of slowing down.

Up and comers

This is the time of year when 2-year-olds make strides that elevate them in the division. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah lost his first race last year and then returned to win the Del Mar Futurity on the last day of the summer meeting. He hasn’t lost since.


Along with American Pharoah, the list of Del Mar Futurity winners who won the Kentucky Derby includes Tomy Lee (1958), Gato del Sol (1981) and Silver Charm (1997).

For starters

In baseball, nothing happens until the pitcher releases the ball; in horse racing, nothing happens until the horses are properly loaded and the starter hits the switch to open the gate.

Veteran assistant starter John Lopez filled in for Gary Brinson in 2012 and this time will be the last-minute replacement for Jay Slender, who had to withdraw because of health issues.


Lopez was up for the task before, so there’s no reason to think he and his crew won’t rise to the occasion this summer.