By Dan Ross
For 85 years already, surf and turf have been kissing cousins at Del Mar, and Friday anoints the latest rekindling of that summer fling at the SoCal seaside venue.
To discuss the meet–which runs through Sept. 11–the TDN sat down with Josh Rubinstein, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, who spoke field size, purse bonuses, stabling and a certain high-flying trainee.
The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TDN: Opening day is Friday with a sold-out crowd and an impressive average field size of 11 horses per-race. Not a bad way to kick things off. What other things can horsemen and racegoers look forward to this summer at Del Mar?
Josh Rubinstein: Last year, obviously we set a very high bar. We averaged $18.4 million in daily handle. [Total handle of $570,725,048 million saw] a hundred-million dollar increase from the previous year. Field size was nearly 8.5 runners per race. We're very optimistic on the upcoming meet.
You mentioned we're off to a great start. Opening day card, there are 11 starters per race. We're working with our partners at the TOC [Thoroughbred Owners of California]. We presented a very aggressive purse program this summer with the daily purse-average of over $800,000 a day, which is not just a Del Mar record, but a California record. We also increased [purses] for 25 of our 39 stakes for a Del Mar record of $8.6 million. There's a lot of good news.
TDN: You raise field size, which has been a real headache lately at Santa Anita and, quite frankly, nationally and internationally. But Del Mar's field sizes have been traditionally strong these past few years. What are your expectations for this year's meet?
JR: We're fortunate to have a terrific racing department led by Tom Robbins [executive vice president of racing and industry relations] and [racing secretary] David Jerkens. They do a wonderful job of communicating with our horsemen and horsewomen, not just during Del Mar, but throughout the year. We get feedback from our horsemen and women, and that goes into the types of races Dave and Tom put in the book.
As you know, we created a few years ago the Ship & Win program. I talked about the record purses that we're offering–the Ship & Win incentives are a record this year, too. We're paying a 50% purse bonus on all non-stake dirt races and 40% on turf, plus a $5,000 first-starter bonus on the dirt, and $4,000 on the turf. So again, those are record incentives.
When you look at our purses this summer, our Maiden Special Weight races are $80,000. So, an out of state horse on the dirt is running for $125,000 for a Maiden Special Weight, which is pretty eye-popping.
The interesting thing about Ship & Win, over 70% of the runners are from local owners and trainers. It's all about our local owners and trainers going out and finding horses and bringing them to California, which is certainly the goal.
Last year, we had over 300 Ship & Win starts at Del Mar and the majority of those horses stayed on the circuit. So, there's a year-round benefit at Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, even up north.
Tom and David do a wonderful job of getting the word out there. David did quite a bit of traveling this Spring to talk about Del Mar. We have 12 trainers–12 out state trainers–who will be with us this summer with over 160 horses. Those trainers include Mike Maker, Jack Sisterson and Robertino Diodoro. It's a good list.
TDN: For a few years now, Del Mar has maintained a consistently good equine welfare and safety record. Have you made any tweaks to that formula this year?
JR: It's always a work in progress. We have regular discussions with the CHRB [California Horse Racing Board], our vets, the TOC and CTT [California Thoroughbred Trainers], ensuring that we've got the safest possible environment at Del Mar.
While we're proud of our safety designation–three years running the safest major racetrack in the country as defined by the equine injury database–there's always more work to be done.
The positive thing is it's not just Del Mar. In California, fatalities were reduced by 50% over the last two years. Santa Anita just concluded a very safe Winter-Spring season, so, we're obviously very proud of the efforts that all the stakeholders have made to make California the model for safety and welfare throughout the country.
TDN: Related to that, the racetrack safety component of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) is now a few weeks into implementation. Has that had any impact on your usual preparations or has it been pretty much business as usual?
JR: In California, we did a lot of this heavy lifting on the safety and welfare reforms over the last few years, so, there really isn't–in terms of racing and training operations–not that much of a change with HISA.
The big change–and I know it hasn't always been a smooth process–is the registration component. All horses have to be registered and then all individuals involved with the care of the horse–owners, trainers, vets, etcetera–have to be registered with HISA. That hasn't always been easy. We're trying to assist where we can.
I can say that the HISA team, led by Lisa Lazarus their CEO, has been very responsive. We had several meetings with Lisa and her team over the last six months on the implementation of HISA.
We believe, at the end of the day, that HISA will make horse racing a better sport throughout the country. It's also going to be a competitive advantage for California as now, all states will be required to adhere to our safety standards and medication testing, which commences in 2023.
TDN: It's been well documented how the pandemic seriously impacted the Del Mar Fairgrounds fiscal health. While things appear a little sunnier for the Fairgrounds now as compared to a couple years ago, how much added pressure does that put on you at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club to perform, considering how integral the track's operations are?
JR: Look, horse racing is an extremely important component of the financial wellbeing of the Del Mar Fairgrounds. As you know, in 2020, there were very, very few events outside of horse racing. In 2021, there were a few events but once again, the positive financial impact of horse racing really sustained the Fairgrounds.
But it's not just on property–it's also the local community. There are many local businesses, hotels, restaurants, the shops throughout Del Mar and Solana Beach, that really rely on horse racing to keep them in business.
TDN: Now, onto the ever-green issue of stabling in Southern California. In 2020, Del Mar invested over $11 million in an onsite wastewater treatment facility to potentially allow for year-round stabling. What's the current status of that?
JR: We've been working with industry stakeholders for both a short and long-term plan on stabling.
I can't really say much beyond that, outside of that we should be able to share details shortly. I'm very optimistic on the direction of things–we seem to have a plan that folks are behind, from the racetracks to the owners, and we'll continue to work on that. I'm just not right now at liberty to share any details.
TDN: And finally, any particular race or horse you're especially looking forward to seeing this summer?
JR: We're off to a great start. Any time, as a racetrack operator, you look at an overnight and your average field size is 11 runners, which is our opening day card, it's a heck of a start. From a wagering standpoint, it's as competitive a card as has been seen in California in a long time. And, of course, Flightline, right…
TDN: I was just about to ask if there's a particular horse beginning with “F.”
JR: At the end of the day, I'm a racing fan just like everybody else in this business. I wasn't around for horses like Spectacular Bid and Seattle Slew and Secretariat.
I know Flightline has a way to go to be in that company. He's run four times so far, but it's been pretty dynamic. Hopefully, we will be fortunate Flightline will grace our presence at Del Mar this year in the TVG Pacific Classic.
TDN: What does it mean to you, as a racetrack operator, to have the possibility of a horse like that show up at your venue?
JR: That's why you're in the business, right, for those big events.
We've been fortunate–we've had some amazing TVG Pacific Classics with California Chrome and Beholder and Shared Belief. Then, of course, going back to the first runnings of the Pacific Classic with Best Pal and when Dare and Go upset Cigar.
It's a race with a ton of history that's been around just since the nineties, but if you think about all those races I just mentioned, it's got a pretty rich tradition. Hopefully, we'll be able to see a superstar like Flightline compete and add to that.