Coming in hot: Jockey, trainer champions of Santa Anita; Overflow crowd of 14 entered for Opening Day Oceanside; Mandella has Royal Ship for San Diego among stakes prospects
But the 55-year-old Encinitas and Manhattan Beach resident readily admits that it didn’t feel the same as the other seven. Not in a time in which COVID-19 protocols for most of the meeting required stands empty of all but “essential” personnel and masks on the faces of everyone there in person.
“Last year felt abnormal, weird, very strange, surreal,” Miller said Monday during a break from morning workouts. “You’d win a race and it felt like you’d won a workout.”
Miller won 28 races, eight more than runner-up Phil D’Amato. Six came in stakes, to raise Miller’s career total to 38 over the last 14 years. And none of those horses returned to a winner’s circle ceremony of picture-taking, reward-presenting, hand-shaking, back-slapping and all-around smiling with success in accordance with decades of racing tradition.
So count Miller, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper, and racetrackers of all sorts, who are looking forward to the return of fans and fanfare when the 82ndsummer season commences a 31-day meeting on Friday.
“Real live people, that’s terrific,” said Harper, in his 44th year at the track helm. “I spent a lot of time walking around talking to myself last year.
“It’s just great. Having people around is what Del Mar is all about. It’s not your average racetrack. It’s a party, concerts and all the things that make people happy. It was kind of sad out here last year when your handle is $200,000 on track and $25 million off track. That was kind of a fun day, but it was just weird.”
“It’s a credit to the whole industry that we got through COVID as well as we did,” said trainer John Sadler, No. 2 for stakes wins (78) in track history. “Now we’re all happy and excited about having a return to normal.”
“We had gone through (COVID 2020 protocols) at Santa Anita before we came down here last summer, so we were kind of prepared,” said Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. “But the stands without fans, the quiet during the races … the weird feeling never went away.”
Billy Koch heads the Little Red Feather racing partnership group, whose all-out-for-fun approach, to racing and life, is especially suited to Del Mar. Little Red Feather’s Red King won the Del Mar Handicap and was voted the top grass horse of the meeting but only a handful of partners were able to celebrate on the tarmac down by the rail.
“We love it down here and Del Mar is the premier meeting we point to,” Koch said. “So it was difficult that a lot of our partners and fans couldn’t get in to see the horses run. But Del Mar did a good job of getting some in to see the races and we appreciated that.
“We did nothing last year (in the way of pre-meet partying), but we’re back this year and champing at the bit. Little Red Feather Nation will be out in force and we’re looking forward to a really good meeting.”
Del Mar opens its summer season on a Friday for the third time since 1970 and the sixth time in its history. Before last year’s COVID-forced no-count, the official totals were 42,562 on the grounds in 2016 and 11,998 in 1970. The other Friday openings came in 1959 and 1941.
Opening Friday 2021 won’t approach 2016 – which ranks as the 10th-highest turnout in track history – but it figures to be a happy contrast to 2020. Del Mar will open with 100% capacity in its seating areas throughout the facility and an approximately 16,000 sellout has been announced. This decision was made in accordance with state and county public health guidelines.
All fans wishing to attend must obtain a seating package in advance of their arrival. Admission tickets and parking passes are included in the package.
Coming in hot: Jockey, trainer champions of Santa Anita
Flavien Prat, who edged out newcomer Umberto Rispoli 50-49 in wins to take the 2020 Del Mar summer riding championship, continued to rule the roost in the Southern California jockey colony with a dominating performance in taking the jockey title for the long Santa Anita winter-spring meeting.
Prat guided home 124 winners from 450 mounts for a comfortable 32 victories margin over the 92 of Juan Hernandez at the Arcadia track. Rispoli (71 wins), Del Mar Fall champion Abel Cedillo (64), and Tyler Baze (39) rounded out the top five.
Phil D’Amato took the Santa Anita trainer title with 52 wins from 206 runners, seven more than Peter Miller notched with 249 starters. Bob Baffert (43 wins), Doug O’Neill (37) and John Sadler (32) completed the top five.
Not coincidentally, the names atop the trainer list at Del Mar in the summer of 2020 were the same, but in a slightly different order. Miller’s 28 wins prevailed by eight over D’Amato with Baffert (15) and O’Neill (13) next. Sadler and Richard Baltas tied for fifth with 12 wins each.
Overflow crowd of 14 entered for Opening Day Oceanside
A field of 15 was entered Tuesday for Friday’s 76th running of the $100,000 Runhappy Oceanside Stakes, the traditional opening day feature of the summer meeting. As many as 13 may make it to the starting gate.
Trainer Bob Hess, Jr., who won a division of the Oceanside in 1993 with Guide, will saddle Mucho Del Oro in the mile test for 3-year-olds on the Jimmy Durante Turf Course. A gelded son of Mucho Macho Man out of the Broken Vow mare Repeta, Mucho Del Oro will make his stakes debut after notching two wins on grass for Hess since being claimed for $30,000 from a maiden event at Santa Anita on April 18 and switched from the dirt main track.
The post position draw was scheduled later this afternoon.
Mandella has Royal Ship for San Diego among stakes prospects
Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella has Brazilian-bred Royal Ship set for Saturday’s 80th running of the Grade II, $250,000 San Diego Handicap to top a list of his graded stakes winners from the past Santa Anita meet he intends to saddle seeking similar honors here during the meeting.
Royal Ship, a 5-year-old son of 2008 Del Mar Futurity winner Midshipman, traded places with Country Grammer in the Grade II Californian and Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Royal Ship took the Californian in April by a neck, but was headed at the wire by Country Grammer in the Gold Cup in May.
Of Mandella’s six graded stakes winners at Santa Anita, four are being targeted for Del Mar events. Bombard, who took the Grade III Daytona in late May at Santa Anita, remains a question mark as does Moonlight d’Oro, winner of the Las Virgines in February, who is on the comeback trail from a chipped knee.
The others are: Tizamagician (Grade III Tokyo City, April 18) – Grade III Cougar II, Sunday; Soothsay (Grade II Santa Anita Oaks, April 3) – possible for Grade I Del Mar Oaks, August 21; United (Grade III San Luis Rey, March 20) – Grade II Del Mar Handicap, August 21.
CLOSERS – Belated happy birthday to Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally, No. 4 for wins (448) and No. 3 for stakes victories (77) on Del Mar’s all-time list, who turned 89 on Saturday, July 11… Selected works from 31 on dirt and 31 on turf Tuesday morning: Dirt – Tizamagician (5f :59.40), Basilla (5f 1:01.60); Turf – Going to Vegas (3f, : 38.60), Bob and Jackie (4f, :52.60), Bodhicitta (5f, 1:01.80), Restrainedvengence (5f, 1:04.20), United (7f, 1:30.60).
Del Mar Notes and News
Photo: Peter Miller (Benoit Photo)