For the first time in its 34 years, the Breeders’ Cup comes to where the turf meets the surf. But how will horse racing’s summer playground adapt to the world stage – and November weather?
That’s the X factor in this thoroughbred world championships.
“Del Mar is a doing a real good job,” said trainer Simon Callaghan, who has three horses competing in Cup races. “There’s a great buzz, great atmosphere.”
Just north of San Diego, Del Mar is renowned for its seaside location, younger crowd and laid back ambiance. For its Breeders’ Cup debut, the cozy seaside track rolled out the purple carpet for racing’s elite with 13 championship stakes worth a combined $28 million.
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Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who will saddle Classic favorite Gun Runner, noted that Del Mar dirt is “immediately different.” That’s a concern for East Coast and Midwest shippers like him.
“This racetrack has a very different composition than where my horse won his last three Grade I races,” Asmussen said. “Saratoga (in New York) and Churchill Downs (in Kentucky) have a very sandy base. This track, it’s very loamy, a clay surface. But Gun Runner has acclimated, he’s trained well here. The good news? He’s racing – we’re watching.”
Asmussen admits he has little experience or luck at Del Mar, where he’s winless as a trainer.
“This is one of the few tracks where I have more winner’s circle photos as a jockey than as a trainer,” said Asmussen, who won 63 races total as a rider, but more than 7,300 as a trainer.
As one of the smallest venues in the Cup’s 34 years, Del Mar capped attendance at 35,000 each day to keep the grandstand relatively comfortable. By comparison, Santa Anita drew 118,484 for the two-day event in 2016 including 72,811 for Classic Saturday.
Officials kept the crowd down on the backstretch, too.
“It’s really great, actually,” said trainer Peter Eurton, who has 2016 Juvenile Fillies winner Champagne Room in Friday’s Distaff, the filly and mare championship. “It’s somewhat empty compared to the hordes of horses here (in August). There are maybe 400, 500 horses here; there are 1,900 during summer.”
Like most of the California trainers, Eurton has been a Del Mar regular for decades.
“They’re doing an amazing job,” said Eurton, who has trained horses here since 1985. “I love to travel, but there’s no place like home. California is probably the best place to have the Cup.”
California trainers hope they may have an edge in Del Mar experience.
“If there’s a little home-court advantage, we’ll take it,” said trainer John Sadler, who has Distaff favorite Stellar Wind. “Del Mar is a beautiful place to race. Obviously, I love it here; I’ve been coming here since I was a kid. I just hope we get California weather.”
Although rain is expected Thursday and Monday, conditions should be perfect for racing Friday and Saturday with mostly sunny skies and temperatures hovering around 70 degrees.
More moisture in the weather can change how the main dirt track “plays.”
“I think it’s slightly faster than the summer,” said Callaghan, who races regularly at Del Mar. “It will still favor (pace-setting) horses on the front end. It’s not that it’s more speed favoring, but lots of our best horses in California have natural speed and they tend to stay (in front) on this track.”
Mick Ruis, who owns and trains juvenile favorite Bolt d’Oro, is a San Diego native. His company, American Scaffold, works on Navy vessels at the nearby shipyard. He’s proud that Del Mar is hosting racing’s marquee event.
“Can it get any better?” Ruis said. “Look to the left, you see the ocean; to the right are the hills. And we’re racing in the middle. People are going to be impressed.”
Debbie Arrington; 916-321-1075, @debarrington
Breeders’ Cup XXXIV
Where: Del Mar Race Course
When: Friday (first cup race, 2:25 p.m.) and Saturday (first Cup race, noon)
TV: 2 p.m. Friday, NBC Sports; 10:30 a.m. Saturday, NBC Sports; 5 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 3