Del Mar Summer: What’s Old, What’s New Where The Turf Meets The Surf?

By now, the Prius should know the route. Follow the setting sun for 2,250 miles of Interstate highway from Lexington, Ky., to Del Mar, Calif. Been making this annual trek for a while now.

Goodbye heat and humidity. Hello ocean breezes and temperatures in the 70s.

Goodbye fried catfish. Hello fish tacos.

While doing the same thing year after year may make life predictable and full of deja vus, I’m not complaining.

Friday will mark my 44th year of racing at Del Mar. My affair started with a gravelly voiced Harry Henson calling the races atop a quaint grandstand. My visits then were mostly weekends while working at Daily Racing Form in Los Angeles.

Then, after moving to Kentucky in the late 1980s, Del Mar became a vacation destination every summer for a couple of weeks to visit in-laws, who were smart enough to buy a home perched between the racetrack and the beach before real estate values went into orbit. They never missed a day at the races, even during the years that construction of a new grandstand limited attendance and ambiance.

After their passing, Del Mar became our summer home, and there is no place I’d rather be.

I can’t wait to hear that Bing Crosby song as the horses leave the paddock for the post parade. And I’ll get a chill from the “roar from the Del Mar crowd,” as track announcer Trevor Denman will surely say, as the field leaves the starting gate from in front of the grandstand in that first race at two o’clock.

But while so many things will be just like last year, and the year before that, there will be some changes.

Opening day attendance, for example, is limited this year to 21,000 and tickets sold out quickly. There were years on jam-packed opening days that invoked the old Yogi Berra malaprop from some “regulars” that “nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.”

Also new this year is a later date for opening and closing days (July 22-Sept. 11) and new placement on the calendar for the meet’s biggest race, the Grade 1 TVG Pacific Classic. The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” contest for the Classic division will be contested as part of a huge card on Sept. 3, Saturday of Labor Day weekend.

A new face in the Del Mar jockey colony is Ramon Vazquez, who moved from the Midwest to Southern California in March. Vazquez has won riding titles at smaller tracks like Prairie Meadows and Lone Star Park and in recent years has been one of the top jockeys at Oaklawn.

Represented by agent William Castle, Vazquez is riding for some of the leading trainers opening weekend, including Peter Miller and Phil D’Amato.

“It’s awesome. Amazing to be here,” said the native of Puerto Rico, where he learned his trade at the jockey school that has produced so many outstanding riders. He came to the U.S. in 2002.

“It’s a privilege to be at Del Mar,” said Vazquez, who has compiled 3,434 career victories and a 19 percent win percentage.

Vazquez isn’t here as a tourist. He’s moved his wife, three children, and mother to Southern California and is hoping to make this a permanent stop. Despite a late start three months into the Santa Anita meet, Vazquez finished just outside the top 10. He comes off a riding title at the brief Los Alamitos Thoroughbred meet, where he won with 12 of his 45 mounts. Some are predicting Vazquez could give Juan Hernandez a run for his money as leading rider at the seaside oval.

“I like Ramon. He’s an excellent rider and hard worker,”  said Miller, Del Mar’s leading trainer the last two summer meets. “I think he’s going to have a big meet. Ramon puts his horses in the race, doesn’t tend to get them in trouble and he’s a good finisher. He can ride all types of horses and rides the grass well. And I like that he can tell you something about a horse when he gets off.”

“We are grateful,” agent Castle said of the West Coast foray. “If we don’t have the trainers, owners, and gamblers we have zero. Sounds corny like a Hallmark card, but we are very, very happy to be here. Never been anyone who’s treated us poorly, not for a second.”

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