One day after a shooting turned this posh seaside track into a major police staging area, racing returned to say goodbye to Del Mar’s popular summer meeting.
Seven weeks after the start, the meet will be remembered for creating new stars in jockey Drayden Van Dyke and Game Winner, the winner of Monday’s closing day Del Mar Futurity. It also had good news in regards to hosting another Breeders’ Cup and the track showed gains in mutuel handle.
It also had its problems, but few were on display Monday. Instead all eyes were to the future and how good the next Bob Baffert-trained colt — Game Winner — is going to be.
Rowayton went to a long lead in the seven-furlong race and even midstretch it looked like he might pull off the win. But Game Winner started to get his stride and reeled in Rowayton, who never changed leads. It appeared as if Game Winner will adapt to the longer distances well. The winning margin was 1½ lengths.
Game Winner was actually the “other Baffert” as stablemate Roadster was installed as the post-time favorite. Roadster finished third. Game Winner paid $5.20, $3.20 and $2.10.
Mario Gutierrez was the jockey and he rarely rides for Baffert. But Baffert had a plan.
“I thought if I could get another race in him, then I wouldn’t have to train him too hard for a two-turn race,” Baffert said of Game Winner. “But I needed a rider, and everybody I use was gone. So I thought of Mario. I think Mario fits this kind of horse. He’s a good rider. He’s won a couple Kentucky Derbies [on I’ll Have Another and Nyquist].
Baffert is looking to the American Pharoah at Santa Anita as Game Winner’s next race.
“He’ll probably be there,” he said. “I don’t know why he has to leave town.”
The race lost some of its star power when Instagrand, who won his first two races by a combined 20 lengths, was pulled from the race. Owner Larry Best wanted him fresh for the American Pharoah (formerly FrontRunner) on Sept. 29 at Santa Anita.
The Futurity, Del Mar’s signature event on closing day, is the first serious challenge for 2-year-olds on the West Coast hoping to make it to the Kentucky Derby trail.
In the day’s other major stakes, Summering, with Van Dyke aboard, won the $100,000 Del Mar Juvenile Fillies Turf over a mile. She was the prohibitive favorite, paying $2.60 to win for trainer Tom Proctor.
While the trainers, owners and fans were looking to the future, Joe Harper, the track’s longtime president and chief executive, was content to look back at the meet.
“I hope big fields, big handle and a lot of fun,” he said when asked how the meeting would be remembered.
One of Del Mar’s big victories this meeting was that the fall meet in 2021 will host the Breeders’ Cup. The track hosted a very successful Breeders’ Cup in 2017, and it appears as if it has found a spot in the event’s rotation.
“The announcement of the Breeders’ Cup certainly helped,” Harper said. “And I think having the Breeders’ Cup last year helped this year. I think more people thought, ‘Oh, Del Mar, that’s a pretty good spot to put a horse.’ We saw a few ship in who we wouldn’t have seen without it.”
This meeting also showed gains in mutuel handle, which was up about 7% and 14.5% over two years. Del Mar no doubt benefited from a very rainy season at the track’s main East Coast competitor, Saratoga.
Another positive was the emergence of Van Dyke as the new “go to” jockey, winning 42 races. Peter Miller won the training title with 31 victories. It was 10 more wins than the second-place trainer, Doug O’Neill.
The meeting did have its downsides, too. Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza suffered a broken vertebrae when his mount, Bobby Abu Dhabi, collapsed and died on the track during a workout. Espinoza faces a long rehabilitation with the hopes of returning to the track. Jockey Corey Nakatani also suffered a back injury in a two-horse spill that killed one of the horses. He has been off the track for a month and is still recovering.
And on Sunday, there was an officer-involved shooting when Daniel Elizarraras, 22, of nearby Escondido became upset when he couldn’t buy a ticket to the sold-out Ice Cube concert following the last race of the day. Elizarraras then pulled out a semiautomatic handgun and fired several shots into a crowded area, according to a sheriff’s office statement. Police responded by shooting Elizarraras. He was taken to the hospital, where he is in stable condition and expected to survive.
Harper saw the incident as isolated and said he would have Ice Cube back again.
“It was the biggest crowd we’ve ever had for a concert,” Harper said of the 18,000. “I don’t see any connection between what happened at the front gate and him. He plays all over the country and there’s been no problems.”
Racing will move to Los Alamitos for three weeks, Santa Anita for five and then return to Del Mar on Nov. 9 for its fall meeting.
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