On Track with Johnny D: With a Sweater

This fall, for the third consecutive year, on 15 occasions, just before the impatient sun disappeared into the Pacific, Thoroughbred racing was offered where the Turf Meets the Surf. FYI, that’s Del Mar–the same summer hotspot where iconic gatherings conclude with sufficient daylight for attendees to ‘hang ten’ before dinner.

Think of it as your father’s Del Mar, with a sweater.

Perhaps the third time really is the charm, because this Bing Crosby season seemed to turn a corner. A slight increase in field size (8.5 as compared to 8.1 in ’15 and 8.3 in ’14) doesn’t tell the entire story, but every little bit helps. What didn’t help on-track attendance–it dipped nearly six percent to a daily average of 5,815–was a weekend of chilly, windy, wet weather.

Apparently, off-track horseplayers found Del Mar’s harvest menu palatable. Total daily average handle increased by 4.6% to $10,174,775 and out of state numbers jumped by 15.3% to average nearly $5 million per card.

Yours truly loves wagering on Southern California racing. Having spent over 30 years working at the circuit’s racetracks in some capacity, it’s part of my fiber. Plus, since I’ve contributed religiously to purses for decades, via non-tax exempt mutuel window donations, I feel as if I have a vested interest in what happens there.

And I feel good about what happened this fall at Del Mar–most of it, anyway.

The racing cards were challenging handicapping puzzles, but fair, and there seemed to be a decent mixture of race types—dirt, turf, stakes, allowance and claiming. The absence of perennial SoCal leading rider Rafael Bejarano for the entire meet and budding French saddle star Flavian Prat for a few weeks, both due to injury, opened the door for Norberto Arroyo, Jr. to significantly advance his comeback tour. He led all riders with 12 wins, one more than youthful Drayden Van Dyke and Prat.

Owners and trainers, apparently, have become accustomed to this young race meeting that now occupies calendar space formerly reserved for Hollywood Park. And that’s critical to success. Next year, the plot thickens as Del Mar’s Bing Crosby season plays host to Breeders’ Cup.

At Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar summer meet, owners and, by extension, trainers make visiting the winner’s circle a priority. Certainly, getting ‘home first’ matters throughout the year, but during certain boutique meets, it’s mandatory. Del Mar’s ‘Crosby season qualifies as a boutique meeting, but it doesn’t have nearly the same panache as the summertime venue. Still, if you’re looking for a suitable locale to celebrate a victory, Del Mar, CA ranks with the best of them.

Coming on the heels of a local SoCal Breeders’ Cup, no equine headliners were booked to perform at the ‘Crosby meet. Matinee idols and SoCal fan magnets California Chrome, Beholder, Songbird and Arrogate were unavailable for a variety of reasons. Still, Del Mar managed to present a pair of outstanding closing week cards that featured notable Breeders’ Cup supporting cast members.

Del Mar’s racing office also did a commendable job in attracting an assortment of eastern-based runners to compete in graded stakes and overnight races. That infusion of talent added depth to stakes fields and, undoubtedly, attracted additional wagering dollars nationwide. Chad Brown, an almost certain Eclipse Award recipient as the nation’s top trainer, shipped a planeload of contenders to chase closing weekend graded stakes money. Representatives from the barns of Kentucky Derby winning trainers Graham Motion and Shug McGaughey joined Brown’s brigade in gates. James Toner, a respected presence on the New York circuit, added one of his pupils to the mix, as did NYRA conditioner George Weaver.

Besides sheer numbers, what was unique about this season’s eastern invasion was how well shippers performed at Del Mar in graded stakes races. Saturday, Brown’s Annals of Time won the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby from stable mate Beach Patrol, and Sunday, Motion’s Miss Temple City won the Grade 1 Matriarch. Saturday, Motion also saddled Journey Home to victory in the somewhat controversial Grade 3 Jimmy Durante Stakes.

As the field entered the first turn in the Jimmy Durante Stakes, several runners broke stride momentarily to leap foreign objects that stormy winds had been blown onto the turf course. Stewards investigated the race and permitted the original result to stand. The decision seems prudent because the other option would have been for stewards to declare the race ‘no contest.’ That would have been unfair to winning connections and bettors, because few horses had been significantly affected by the incident.

On an otherwise outstanding closing weekend, the conclusion of not just one, but a collection of six races, was shrouded in horseplayer confusion and unrest.

This season, in an effort to foster large, jackpot payouts, Del Mar altered its Pick Six format to introduce a Single Ticket Jackpot pool bonus. Under the new structure 70% of the Pick Six pool continued to go to those with all six winners, but instead of 30% of the pool going to those with five correct winners, the consolation payoff was reduced to 15%. The remaining 15% was used to create and feed the jackpot pool with a carryover provision, to be distributed to anyone with a single, correct winning pick six ticket.

Since Sunday was closing day and therefore required a mandatory payout of all wagers, both Pick Six and Jackpot pools were up for grabs to those capable of nailing six winners. There was an $89,411 carryover into Sunday’s mandatory payout Pick Six pool, with an additional $780,563 in new money added for a total of $869,974. A challenging, but not impossible, sequence yielded a $15,660.40 payout each to 44 tickets with all six winners. Those clutching tickets with five correct winners anxiously awaited notice of their consolation prize based on 15% of the total pool.

Unfortunately, no announcement came players remained in limbo. Sunday evening, Del Mar asked players to hold their horses and, specifically, for those with pick six investments to hang onto their tickets. Monday, a resolution of sorts came in a Del Mar press release which, in a nutshell, stated that, according to revised pick six rules, in a mandatory payout scenario there would be no payout for five winners.

Naturally, this precipitated outrage on social media. Then again, what doesn’t? Obviously, someone had goofed, probably several someones. Any alteration to a wager that’s been virtually unchanged for 36 years merits mention. There had been plenty of missives alerting players to the birth of the Jackpot provision, but no note of a new closing-day consolation payout twist.

Fortunately, the error’s consequences did not prove disastrous—I suppose, unless you were one of those holding a bunch of five out of six sheets shredded after Monday’s announcement. Those selecting one less winner than was necessary to win the top prize were disappointed. They expected to be compensated for having five out of six winners and weren’t. That’s just plain wrong. The rules of the game had been changed and no one had informed the players.

Wednesday afternoon, Del Mar officials announced that they would “make it right” for fans and provide a payout to consolation ticket holders. The track reported that there are 1,095 tickets with five winners and that each is worth $81.60 for a total of $89,352.

To turn a popular phrase, ‘not a dollar short, but certainly a day late!’ In fact, probably about three days late. Del Mar’s efforts to “make it right” are admirable, but too tardy.

Hopefully, a lesson has been learned and, in the future, everyone will be more careful and communicative.

As for the whole single-ticket, Pick-Six Jackpot pool thingy…personally, I’m not a fan. I figure, with my small pick six ticket stabs I’m already swimming upstream every time I play. During any race meeting I’m going to have way more tickets with five out of six than ones with six out of six. That extra 15% that no longer juices up my consolation payoffs adds up over the course of a season. Long term, those consos help to pad my bankroll and to keep me in action while I pursue the perfect ticket. Whatever that amount used to be during Del Mar, it was cut in half for this season’s Bing Crosby gathering.

I’d love for this longshot to come in, but the odds of me holding a single winning pick six ticket are astronomically against. However, there’s a fair chance I’ll have five out of six the next time I play!

And, please, riddle me this: Why would the holder of a single winning Southern California pick six ticket need to collect even more money?

On the other hand, I get it. The popularity of pick six jackpots nationwide has convinced racetrack suits: players want bigger scores. And it’s true. We do. Trouble is that while we chase the dream our bankrolls crumble.

Hand this crybaby a tissue and let’s move on.

Los Alamitos opens Thursday and there’s handicapping to be done. In the future, we probably will see even more jackpot type wagering options at racetracks nationwide. After all, that’s what players want.

But, as the maxim goes: Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: With a Sweater

On Track with Johnny D |