Del Mar opens with new dirt track and a Triple Crown winner

Triple Crown winner American Pharoah gets a treat from assistant trainer Jim Barnes in the stables at Del Mar on July 14.

Triple Crown winner American Pharoah gets a treat from assistant trainer Jim Barnes in the stables at Del Mar on July 14.

(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)

Last year during a trying summer meeting at Del Mar, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert offered an antidote to the run of bad luck.

“Wait and see what that new dirt track will do for Del Mar,” he said. “You’ll see that old Del Mar vibe back.”

A year later, buoyed by having American Pharoah, the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, stabled on the Del Mar backstretch in Baffert’s barn, Del Mar begins its 76th racing season Thursday. There’s hope that the new El Segundo sand will produce exciting and safe racing.


Del Mar is known for its party atmosphere, concerts and special events, but the two things that sealed the deal for the storied track to get the 2017 Breeders’ Cup was replacing the controversial Polytrack with a dirt track and the expansion of the turf course. Thus far, the dirt track appears to be settling and firming up. The turf course is lusher and not nearly as hard as it was to open the meeting last summer when it had to be closed for seven days due to breakdowns.

“I don’t care if it’s synthetic, dirt or broken glass, so long as it’s safe is all that matters to me,” said Peter Miller, who won the training title last summer and fall here and comes here after tying Doug O’Neill for the spring title at Santa Anita. “I’m pleased with the track.”

The 40-day meeting features nearly $8 million in purses for 43 stakes races and nearly $700,000 in daily purses that make Del Mar the richest meeting in the state.

For the 25th year, the stakes schedule includes one of the West’s premier races for 3-year-olds and older horses, the Grade I, $1 million TVG Pacific Classic on Aug. 22. Unfortunately, defending champion Shared Belief won’t be here to defend his title. The 4-year-old, owned in part by radio personality Jim Rome, is mending from a hip injury.

Joe Harper, CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, holds out hope that American Pharoah, somehow runs in that race. He knows it’s a long shot. But even if American Pharoah runs in the Haskell Invitational on Aug. 22 and never races here, his presence on the track this week already has elevated the atmosphere.

“We don’t get these Triple Crown horses very often, and when you get one like him, one who did it so effortlessly, it’s really special,” Harper said Tuesday morning after American Pharoah went to the track for a mile jog to test the Del Mar dirt for the first time. “We’re just glad to have him here to kick off the racing season.”


Opening Day features 10 races. The first race is at a mile on the dirt and, as part of the Del Mar tradition, will start in front of what should be a packed grandstand.

The card also has the traditional opening-day, $100,000 Oceanside Stakes, 70th edition, run at one mile on the turf course for 3-year-olds. Top horses in the Oceanside include trainer Phil D’Amato’s Papacoolpapacool and trainer Jeff Mullins’ Soul Driver, along with trainer George Papaprodromou’s Peacenluvpeacenluv, who won here at five furlongs on the turf last July.

After the special Thursday opener, racing will go every Wednesday through Sunday through Labor Day, Sept. 7.