As the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club pulls back the curtain Friday on its 77th summer of horse racing, it does so with a dream matchup of older horses, young horses developing into stars and spirited battles between champion jockeys.
Start at the top with horse racing’s top attraction in California Chrome, who arrived Wednesday, preened Thursday morning for the media, and will have his first official workout Saturday morning at 7:45.
All of it is in preparation for Chrome’s tune-up run in the San Diego Handicap next weekend and, if all goes well, a much-ballyhooed matchup against the top mare in the U.S., Beholder, in the Aug. 20 Pacific Classic.
Last year, Beholder ran away from the boys, winning the Classic by a dominating 8½ lengths on her way to a third Eclipse Award. She is scheduled to run in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on July 30, a week after Chrome’s race.
Opening day, at which more than 40,000 fans are expected, kicks off a seven-week get-together, the meet debuting on a Friday for the first time in 46 years. Racing continues Wednesdays through Sundays until Labor Day.
The work starts right away for trainer Bob Baffert, who is saddling the 7-2 morning line favorite Moonlight Drive in Friday’s traditional feature, the Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds at one mile on the turf. Rafael Bejarano, the riding champion at Del Mar the last four summers, will be aboard.
“Del Mar is obviously a great place to be,” said Baffert, who spends much of his time in the track’s winner’s circle, having saddled a record 113 stakes winners. “It’s nice. It’s cool. You’re by the ocean. It has always been one of my favorites.”
Phil D’Amato, who took over for Del Mar’s all-time winner Mike Mitchell in 2014, is coming off 25 victories — seven more than Baffert — and a spring training title at Santa Anita. He’s expected to send out Midnight Storm, a stakes winner at Santa Anita recently, in Sunday’s Grade II Eddie Read Stakes, a race that often helps determine the top turf horse of the meeting.
Doug O’Neill is here as well, along with his stable star Nyquist, although the Kentucky Derby winner is not expected to run. He’s getting ready for a potential run in the Haskell this month in New Jersey. O’Neill won four Del Mar training titles between 2004-10, and last year he set a track record with five racing wins in one afternoon.