A year ago, the folks who run the racetrack at Del Mar were equal parts giddy and edgy.
The start of the summer meeting was the bell that opened the gate on their marathon run toward hosting their first Breeders’ Cup in November, with all the glamour and headaches that come with it.
On the track, there was great anticipation for the performances of the world’s top-ranked thoroughbred — the Bob Baffert-trained Arrogate.
And the track itself was a story, with Del Mar nervously opening the meet with the hope that an extensive dirt surface overhaul would produce safer trips for horses and jockeys.
Two out of those three worked out better than most could have imagined.
The Breeders’ Cup was an enormous success, and six horse deaths on the grounds were an encouraging reduction from the 17 fatalities the previous summer — though some trainers and handicappers grumbled that a softer track seemed to affect some horses more than others.
Maybe one of those was Arrogate, who couldn’t rise to the headlines, and figuratively stumbled badly in losses in the San Diego Handicap, Pacific Classic and, ultimately, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It will be tough to match that kind of tension and drama this summer, but maybe that’s a good thing. Del Mar is supposed to be like a day at the beach, not rush hour in L.A.
The only Baffert horse this year that carries Arrogate’s stature actually surpasses him — reigning Triple Crown winner Justify, and it’s already been determined he won’t run in the meet over concerns about an ankle.
Baffert still has his usual impressive pool of talented 2-year-olds and a couple of contenders for the Pacific Classic that will keep him busy, but probably not up all night.
The stables that produce the most starters belong to Richard Baltas, Phil D’Amato, Doug O’Neill and Peter Miller — and not surprisingly, the four of them finished in the top six in earnings at the summer meet, with D’Amato and Baltas tying for the training title with 18 wins apiece. (Miller won last year’s fall meet here.)
Among the jockeys, the faces are mostly the same, and Frenchman Flavien Prat has established himself as Southern California’s dominant rider. He won both Del Mar titles last year (with 35 and 18 victories), topped the Santa Anita spring meet and was second (by one win) to Evin Roman in that track’s winter meeting.
There are 41 stakes races scheduled, including six Grade 1 challenges.
The first biggie is Saturday’s Grade 2 San Diego Handicap, the prep race for the meet’s marquee attraction, the Pacific Classic on Aug. 18.
Del Mar has a good way to keep fans from heading for the parking lot early — give them a potentially huge late-in-the-day payoff. Among the new betting options is a 50-cent late Pick Five for the final five races. On Saturday and Sunday, a single ticket with the five winners would earn a $1-million payout (the weekday bonus is still a healthy $500,000).
Beyond the late Pick Five, also offered this year is an early, 50-cent Pick Four starting with the second race, and a $2 win, place, show parlay for a minimum of two and maximum of six races.
A few more facts:
When: Wednesday through Sept. 3, with racing Wednesdays through Sundays, plus Monday, Sept. 3.
Post time: 2 p.m. daily, except for 4 p.m. on Fridays (3:30 p.m. on Aug. 24 and 31).
Gates open: Two hours before first post except 2½ hours on opening day and Pacific Classic day (Aug. 18).
Admission: $6 for Stretch Run (grandstand) and infield ($15 on opening day). Active military and dependents are free every day with ID. Clubhouse admission is $10 ($30 on opening day). Diamond Club members (free to join) are admitted free every Wednesday (not counting opening day) and half-price every other day. Diamond Club Seniors (62 and over) receive free Stretch Run admission every Thursday. Children 17 and under are free but must be accompanied by parent or guardian. Free program with every paid admission.
Early Bird Wagering: 9-10 a.m. each racing day except Fridays when it continues until 1 p.m.
Seating: Reserved seats are $5 (Wednesday-Thursday), $8 (Friday), $10 (Saturday, Sunday and Labor Day), $15 (Pacific Classic Day, Aug. 18) and $30 (opening day).
Parking: $10 general and early bird, $15 preferred, $25 valet ($40 opening day).