By David A. Bernsen
From the types of wagers (no show betting in Australia) to drug rules (horses run on bleeding medication in America), and a plethora of other nuances, racing in Australia is distinctly different from racing in America.
The biggest difference might be the duration of the race meetings themselves.
In North America, the word "Carnival" really does not exist, and race meetings encompass an entire "season." For instance, the Melbourne Spring Carnival might encompass 35-40 races held on five or six days over a two-week span.
Conversely, Del Mar runs for a total of 43 days during a 49 day span, Wednesday through Monday while taking each Tuesday off. Last year, an astonishing US $571 million was wagered on Del Mar races during the meet.
Throw in the Pacific Classic Weekend which features a number of Grade One races including the US $1 Million Pacific Classic, rock concerts every Friday night following twilight racing, Jazz concerts every Wednesday after the day racing, the daily purses averaging right around one-half million dollars a day, crowds ranging from 10,000 on weekdays to 30,000 on weekends, a slew of stakes races, the beach and Pacific Ocean just about a 9-iron shot from the top of the straight, Mexican beer, Mariachi bands, a couple of drinks called 'Del Mar'garitas, and 'Del Mar'tinis, sunning days at about 22 degrees, and you have America's showcase summer race meet.
You also have an atmosphere that might be considered the closest thing the States has to offer to a big race meeting in Australia.
When queried by horseplayers and fans in the USA about what Australian racing is like compared to in America, which is often, I simply tell them to attend Opening Day at Del Mar.
Opening Day at Del Mar is arguably America's best day of live racing, Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup included. Not because of the quality of racing, but the actual event itself.
In fact, the racing itself is an odd mishmash of events featuring the traditional Oceanside Stakes. A one-mile (1600 metre), non-Graded stakes race that is actually split into two divisions. You see, Del Mar, as most America racecourses, offers racing on both turf and dirt, with about 75% of the some 370 or so races run from July 21 through September 8 will have been run on the dirt.
The turf course is one of the most unique on America.
Named after one of America's great comedians, the Jimmy Durante Turf Course is located "inside of the dirt track, which is considered to be a "tightly turned one mile oval." Inasmuch, the width of the course limits the number of starters in a race to ten, and in most of the races, the horses come firing out of a "shoot" in the infield, requiring the riders to navigate two and one-half turns with no room for error. If your horse draws the outside barrier, you can forget-about-it!
Because of that limit of ten starters; 1) Del Mar will never see a Breeders' Cup as it requires the ability to have fourteen starters in the turf races (unless the course is redesigned), and 2) the Oceanside Stakes gets divvied up into two races with the same name.
As mentioned before, the racing plays second fiddle to the scene itself and the "scenery."
Now Del Mar is quite famous for it's "scenery." The mission-style designed of the track. The beach. The gorgeous weather. The fountains. The palm trees and flowers.
But truth be known, it would be the fillies.
I remember a number of years ago, the late Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham (of Sunday Silence fame) was asked by a son of one of his owners about how a man his age (over seventy-years-old at the time) keeps getting up the morning and is excited year after year.
The infamous man known at "The Bald Eagle" looked at the rather naïve young bloke and commented in a very statesman-like manner…
"Son, nothin' stirs a man's spirit more than gettin' his hands on a few young fillies at Del Mar."
While there are many differences at Del Mar and raceclubs Down-Under, such as Australian Member Areas requiring coat and tie, and the Del Mar version, called the Clubhouse readily accepts shorts, sandals and Mambo shirts (see my Bio picture in this story), there are some similarities.
A visit to the members' area at Royal Randwick during the Easter Carnival and Del Mar on Opening Day, while the dress code might be different, the vast majority of the action is not taking place on the track.
Now mind you that those Fashions on the Field competitions that are so popular on big Carnival days and that sort of thing, really don't exist in America. Yes, there is the much ballyhooed of ladies wearing hats to the Kentucky Derby, but trust me that is a distant second to "The One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest."
Contestants vie for the title of Best Racing Theme, Funniest/Most Outrageous, Most Glamorous and something called Best Fresh Flowers. Track management considers "The One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest" as a "highlight" of Del Mar Opening Day.
However, over the past few years, more than one sportswriter and heaps of racegoers, have unofficially renamed Opening Day the "The One and Only Truly Fabulous Cocktail Dress and Silicone Implant Contest."
Completing the Del Mar fashion cocktail this year was a big style trend with the girls in San Diego which entails knee length skirts, sleeveless belly-exposing tops to show-off the most recent tattoo, plus the accessory of either reflective sunglasses or horn-rimmed black glasses (depending if it is casual daytime or more fashionable nighttime).
As typical of Del Mar on Opening Day, the fillies were once again in good form to kick of the season this year as the horses were led onto the track from the saddling enclosure to the traditional playing of a scratchy old adaptation of "Where The Turf Meets The Surf" sung by legendary crooner Bing Crosby, who founded the seaside course in 1937.
The weather was typical of Del Mar. Outstanding. As with the fillies, the turf and dirt tracks were in fine form, the grass course labeled as "Good" (which is perfect in the USA) and the main dirt track was labeled "Fast."
There would be no "off-tracks" today. Although, as a matter of interest, there has never been an off-track for any race held at Del Mar since Crosby and his pals like Pat O'Brien and Jimmy Cagney opened the facility some 67 years ago!
One thing that was not in good form unfortunately was the brand spanking new, high-tech toteboard in the infield. Well actually, the tote board was fine it was the giant vision screen that had a bit of a hiccup.
For the entire day it was somewhat a jumbled combination of squares, chopped off video showing the bottom of the racetrack, and some sort of hieroglyphic numerals.
We knew we were in trouble when America's foremost race caller, a South African by the name of Trevor Denman announced to a throng of anxious fans shortly before the first race that while management was feverishly working on the toteboard, we would have to resort to watching racing the "old fashion way" and actually watch the horses run around the track.
Del Mar president Joe Harper, whom as a side note is the grandson of cinematic pioneering director Cecil B. DeMille, swore it was tested the day before, but as he put it, "There are 78 elements to the new board. When it goes down, each one needs to be rebooted and that takes time."
Considering that Harper has been the architect of America's premier race meeting for years, which seems to just get better and better - he gets cut a break on this one.
Nonetheless, it did make you appreciate what modern technology has brought to racing.
And besides, this IS Del Mar, and it was nothing to sweat about. Just sit back, get another Corona beer with lime and check out the scenery.
Now in case you were wondering, there actually is a point to this story for the Australian breeding industry.
It began when another filly made an impact on Del Mar.
This one was of the four-legged variety.
In 1999, a New Zealand-bred daughter of Yachtie by the name of Happyanunoit was brought to the Northern Hemisphere. The deal, brokered by Kiwi bloodstock agent, Paul Moroney, landed the filly in the barn of America's top grass trainer, Bobby Frankel.
Frankel added blinkers to "put her into the race" and Lasix (the medication American horses run on to control bleeding). 'Happy' burst onto the US racing scene by winning the Grade Two Palomar Handicap over the Del Mar grass. While she went on to become a Grade One winner and earning more than US $1.5 million, her Del Mar performance opened the eyes of many American owners and trainers to the quality of horse produced in the Southern Hemisphere.
On the heels of Happyanunoit, followed the growing international interest in Sunline, a new market was opened up for sourcing top quality racehorses to the Northern Hemisphere.
Each year, the Del Mar race cards have been peppered with an increasing number of Australian and New Zealand-breds. In fact, one race in 2003 at Del Mar had no less that five Southern Hemisphere connected horses bolting from the barrier.
Currently California seems to be on the receiving end of most charges; ranging from the lower stakes variety like sprinter Da Valmont to proven Group types like Golden Slipper runner-up How Funny. Even some useful, but not stakes quality type horses have been making their way north such Aussie-breds Selangor and Tracktalk, both of which appeared during opening week at Del Mar.
In fact, there might be a real star in the making with the Kiwi-bred Eternal Melody, who absolute romped in the feature race at Del Mar on the second day of the season.
Time will tell if this trend will continue but South America has long been a source of racing stock. For instance, while three Aussie/NZ-bred appeared Opening Week at Del Mar this year, 23 South American horses started. Twenty-three!
I do not profess to have the best understanding of South American breeding and racing, but I do have a pretty good feel for the quality of breeding and racing in Australia and the level of where a horse might be able to compete in America.
I am of the opinion that the quality of Australian horses, at all levels of racing in America, far exceeds that of South American horses. Inasmuch, there is no reason why Australia can not only be equal to the South American market for importing tried horses, but can far surpass it.
It is a new distribution channel for the Australian industry waiting to be exploited.
Anyway, in keeping with the taste of Australia that Del Mar seems to be acquiring, I need to wrap this story up so I can get up to the track, get a Corona, and "Get Born" as Aussie rock-band 'Jet' is playing in the Plaza de Mexico tonight after the races!
David Bernsen is an Internet technology consultant and CEO of Let It Ride.com Companies, parent of SalesRing.com, a worldwide Thoroughbred buying and selling exchange; MMSalesRing.com in partnership with Magic Millions targeting the Southern Hemisphere; and WatchandWager.com, a global horse race wagering initiative based in the USA in partnership with AmericaTAB.
As an owner-breeder, his Carondelet Farm bred Breeders' Cup Champion and Eclipse Award winner ARTAX, and owns stakes in a number of Australia and American stallions.
He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Reproduced text & photos with the courtesy of Australasian Turf Monthly
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