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Will There Be Enough Horses To Race At Del Mar?

Above: Del Mar racetrack

Aired 7/20/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Del Mar Racetrack opens today but the economy is affecting the number of California horses participating.

Del Mar racetrack
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Above: Del Mar racetrack

Del Mar Racetrack opens today but the economy is affecting the number of California horses participating. Joe Harper, president and general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club tells Midday Edition, they're feeling the pinch of the declining horse population this season.

"All of a sudden, you're riding a three-year-old race, wondering where they all are, well, they weren't born. We're not the only state who's going through this. This is harder in California because we're isolated. Back east, they've got a whole bunch of race tracks with a whole bunch of horses," he said.

Harper tells Midday Edition they've offered incentives to encourage horse owners from out of state to participate.

"The main thing we did was we offered a thousand dollars to anybody out of state that would come and race their horse at Del Mar. And if they start here, then we'll pay them a thousand dollars plus 20% bonus money of anything that that horse might win in that race." he said.

Del Mar mayor Don Mosier tells Midday Edition the race season is good for his city.

"Our hotel occupancy jumps up to above 90%, some years close to a hundred percent during the race season. Our restaurant sales tax revenues go up. It's definitely an economic benefit to Del Mar. Looking at the figures in the last couple of years, we can see that things were slow in 2007, 2008, and they picked up every year since then," he said.

GUESTS

Joe Harper, President and General Manager, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

Don Mosier, City of Del Mar, mayor

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

FUDGE: Horse racing begins in Del Mar today. Will there be enough colts to fill the racing cards? You're listening to Midday Edition. I'm Tom Fudge filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh. We're less than two hours away from the opening race where the turf meets the surf. But this year, the Del Mar track may have a shortage of horses. We'll find out why that is and how it could affect the season. We'll wrap up our series on the states of the ocean, as we ask whether there's anything we can do about the myriad environmental problems upon also a tussle that's broken out in the San Diegito school district how religion should be represented and taught. We'll hear from the head have had a Christian group who says he's trying to protect free speech, and from a principle who's trying to make sure the school doesn't favor one religion over another. KPBS Midday Edition is next. First the news.

FUDGE: Hello, I'm Tom Fudge am you're listening to Midday Edition on KPBS. The Del Mar racing season gets under way today. It's a day to wear big hats and carry on a San Diego tradition. But this year there is a problem. A number of thoroughbred race horses in California is dropping. The race horse population has gone down more than 50% in the last 20†years. And that causes a problem for a track that has to fill 37 race carts every day. Today, we're going to talk about what the day at the races -- about the day at the races, and what the Del Mar track has done to try to rise to this challenge. And also what effect might it have on the local economy in Del Mar. Joining me to talk about these things are Joe Harper and Don Mosier. Joe Harper is president and general manager of the thoroughbred club.

HARPER: Thanks for having me on.

FUDGE: And don Mosier is the mayor of Del Mar. And Don, thanks to you.

MOSIER: Thank you, Tom.

FUDGE: If you're a fan of horse racing, and you want to give us a call, you can do it by calling 1-888-895-5727. Joe, it's a busy day for you at the race track today before we get to the serious stuff, why don't want you tell us a little bit about what opening day is like.

HARPER: Well, this is my, I guess, 35th opening day. And it never ceases to amaze me. I'm sitting here looking out my office on a sea of pretty hats and beautiful people, and it's just a great day. San Diego is a terrific market for racing and for this type of racing. It's a party. We've branded our product pretty well in this town. And it's been very supportive. Just to show you what happens with the same product, it's said that Hollywood park have and a smaller market area, we do three times their business. So you can see how much a city that's supporting a business can do for it, and boy, we love San Diego.

FUDGE: It sounds like you are doing well. But the sluggish economy has been tough on all businesses. Has it been tough on you as well?

HARPER: You know, I'm happy to say no. I really think that when people were worried, they want to go somewhere and be happy. And I think that we've sort of been the recipient of that. Sure, we have a shortage of horses. But we did last year, for instance, we went from six days a week to five days a week. And we rearranged some of our races so we didn't lose all those full days of racing. And it turned out, if you could put a race that was on a Monday that might have been handled $100,000, you put it on a Friday and it handled a hundred and $50,000. So obviously it was a profitability and a shorter need, as well as save over head. So we had a terrific mete last year. We have had steady growth for the last decade, which is unlike any track in the rest of the country. But again, we've always looked at we're in the entertainment business, not just the gambling or the racing business. And I think when -- in a bad economy, when last year people came out on opening day, 45,000 people, our biggest day we've ever had at Del Mar, and the handle for that day was almost $13†million, and they consumed a million three food and beverage. So obviously the economy is Ia factor, but it seems like we're just a little immune to it.

FUDGE: I guess people can also improve their economic prospects if they bet on the right horses.

HARPER: That's true. The favorites win the money at 66% of the time. So you do have a pretty good shot here.

FUDGE: Let's talk about the shortage of race horses. What's going on? Why are there not as many race horses as we had before?

HARPER: Well, it's the economy. Three years ago, when it hit pretty hard, not everybody wanted to breed their horses. They were concerned that they'd have trouble selling them in the breeding industry. So the full crop was down considerably. And we've seen that happen just about every year for the last three years. All of a sudden, you're riding a three-year-old race, wondering where they all are, well, they weren't born. We're not the only state who's going through this. This is harder in California because we're isolated. Back east, they've got a whole bunch of race tracks with a whole bunch of horses. Out here you only have two circuits, the north and the south, and the southern circuit is it is hurrying, not as bad as up north. But we have fewer horses to deal with.

FUDGE: Was I right when I said you have to fill 37 racing carts every day?

HARPER: Near absolutely right. We've already got three in the camp so we're good about that. But it's probably going to be not quite as easy as we go through the mete. Now, we've seen some things to alleviate that.

FUDGE: Tell us about that. What have you done to incentivize horses to come to California?

HARPER: The main thing we did was we offered a thousand dollars to anybody out of state that would come and race their horse at Del Mar. And if they start here, then we'll pay them a thousand dollars plus 20% bonus money of anything that that horse might win in that race. So we didn't really know. We looked at last year, what horses would have qualified for that. And there were about 50 horses. But right now, we seem to be -- I'm looking at an awful lot of new faces on that back stretch, and we're seeing horse men that haven't been here for a while. A guy like Dallas Cane what races in Texas. And Bill Pullman of New Mexico, he's here with a pretty good stake. That brought him here. We've seen some trainers that come here annually but have gone back out of state and claimed or purchased horses that they can wring in here to be eligible for the thousand dollar and 20%. So it's working. Time will tell as we go through the mete. But I doubt seriously whether we will get as many races as we had last year.

FUDGE: And I want to get don Mosier involved in the conversation pretty soon. But $1,000 to horses from out of state plus 20% bonus, that's gotta have an effect on your bottom line.

HARPER: Well, you be, every horse that enters the race has an effect on our bottom line either way. So we certainly didn't do that without putting together a performer and figuring out how many horses we need and what kind of races and what kind of handle to make it work. And believe me, it's there. This is not a cost that is without return. And it used to be in the old days, you wanted the quality of horses in races to increase your handle. But for the last ten years or so, it's been quantity. Of and it's just -- you get a 12 horse field of cheaper horses, that handle will be more than a seven horse field of good allowance horses. So believe me, when you throw another horse into a race, it's worth quite a bit of money.

FUDGE: Joe harper is president and general manager of the Del Mar thoroughbred club. In less than two hours, they're going to have their first race of the season in Del Mar. Joining me also on the phone is don Mosier, the mayor of Del Mar. And don, what does the opening of the races in Del Mar mean to you as the mayor of the city?

MOSIER: Well, the race track in Del Mar has been there since 1937. This is a historical event that we look forward to every year. It's interwoven with the history of Del Mar. It's an exciting event, it brings lots of people here. It's a matter atmosphere as well as a racing atmosphere. And it really brings a lot of visitors to Del Mar who stay in Del Mar and enjoy the hotels and restaurants. It's an economic benefit to the city, but it truly is an event we look forward to every year.

FUDGE: And that was my key question for you, was does this bring people in? There are some events, entertainment events, that just draw from the local population. But do people come to Del Mar to the races who otherwise wouldn't come to Del Mar, and do they spend money?

MOSIER: The answer is definitely yes. Our hotel occupancy jumps up to above 90%, some years close to a hundred% during the race season. Our restaurant sales tax revenues go up. It's definitely an economic benefit to Del Mar. Looking at the figures in the last couple of years, we can see that things were slow in 2007, 2008, and they picked up every year since then.

FUDGE: And getting back to you, Joe harper, another question about the shortage of horses. Is this something that you expect will continue, or is this something that will correct itself as the economy improves?

HARPER: Well, I think it will correct itself as the breeding industry starts to feel a little better about the economy and will start taking in some more folds. It's just a question of -- that's one of those things where you gotta take a chance. You can't look at the sales and say, oh, good, it's getting better. You kind of gotta breed and hope it gets better because of the number of foals out there. And I think it will. I think it'll pick up. I think the economy as a whole is starting to show signs of improvement. I think people are spending more in different venues. The discretionary income seems to be on an up swing.

FUDGE: Now, who are -- speaking of discretionary income, I'm wondering, who are the people who own race horses? Are they people who are professionals in the industry? Or are we talking about wealthy people who have a little money to spend who think it would be fun to buy a race horse?

HARPER: Well, I think it's across the board. I think you're right in both cases. In the old days, it was the great racing families, the Phipps, and the Windies and all the big money people from the east. But over the years, it's changed a lot. It's sure a successful people business that enjoy owning a horse or two or sometimes big stables. San Diego's own John maybe, golden eagle experience, was one of the biggest breeders and races of horses in the country. But now we're seeing a lot of syndicates, people that can dial in for maybe a thousand dollars a month or so and own a thoroughbred with other people. You see quite a bit of that. So that's opened up a pretty good market for us. So they're out there. I think the money's there to spend, yet you don't have to be a pips or windy to come in and be part of this game.

FUDGE: And don, as the mayor of Del Mar, do you see the horse racing industry as something which -- it's obviously a great tradition in Del Mar, and in San Diego County. Do you see it as an industry that's going to keep ongoing, that is going to keep growing? Do you have any concerns about the shortage of race horses we've been talking about?

MOSIER: Well, we'd like to see the industry grow particularly at Del Mar. Joe's being modest. The Del Mar track has outperformed, I think, every other track in the nation in terms of their handle and the way it's been run. It's really a unique institution. And we'd like to see it grow. We are concerned that the supply of racing horses and racing in general seems to be diminishing on the west coast. As you remember, the city of Del Mar was interested in purchasing the Fairgrounds, and a key part of that was to get Mike pecker man and his group of owners involved to make some updates to the track. So the city of Del Mar is firmly behind keeping racing at Del Mar. We hope we can partner with investors to improve the track and make insurance a future success. I think it can be the boutique track of the west coast, if it isn't already. And the city of Del Mar firmly believes that this is an important thing for the city and the region.

FUDGE: Joe, one more question for you. There are always comfortable things that happen during the racing season. It's my understanding that you're going to have a race which you have called the race of the Xs.

HARPER: Yes.

FUDGE: Which is a sad romantic story, but might be a good racing story.

HARPER: Well, yeah, our marketing department is quick to take advantage of a bad situation. And what arose was it was Mike Smith who was a hall of fame writer, won the Kentucky derby, and he had been for a couple of years heavily involved with a young lady named Chandel Shutterland, who is a very good jockey from Canada. And I think at one buoyant they were even talking about getting married. But the relationship took a turn for the worst, and they split up. And it was not a nice split, apparently. So now we have two very good riders that can't stand each other on a personal level.

FUDGE: They're going to take it out on --

HARPER: Right.

FUDGE: -- on each other on the race track.

HARPER: Absolutely. We jumped to that one. And surprisingly, they agreed to a match race. So here on August†7th, we're going to have the battle of the exs, Mike versus Chandel. And it should be very interesting. They'll beat each other with their whips down the stretch, I wouldn't be surprised.

FUDGE: Joe harper is president and general manager of the Del Mar thoroughbred club. The Del Mar race track is opening its season today. Thank you Joe.

HARPER: Thank you for having us on, Tom.

FUDGE: And Tom Mosier is mayor of the city of Del Mar. Thank you don.

MOSIER: Thank you, Tom.

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