On Track with Johnny D: Grass is Greener

Ever hear the proverb about how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? It’s supposed to teach us to be satisfied with what we have instead of envying a neighbor’s possessions.

This past Thanksgiving holiday weekend at Del Mar racetrack in California, that message got the bird…and I don’t mean the turkey. Several eastern-based horses, owners, trainers and jockeys found the Del Mar turf course way ‘greener’ than any in their own backyards. And not just the color. Jetsetters hopped ‘the fence’ and engineered the richest ever smash-and-grab this side of Rodeo Drive. In three days, they won five graded stakes worth over $1 million in total purses! Locals didn’t know what hit them. And the races weren’t even close. Ones that required photos resembled invader selfies.

The SoCal Autumn Turf Festival originated at now defunct Hollywood Park and used to attract decent eastern participation. Now, in just the third Bing Crosby season of hosting autumn dates over a revamped turf course, Del Mar has re-invigorated the Festival and established itself as a seasonal haven for nationwide turf runners.

For decades, Del Mar has been a summer destination for vacationers and horseplayers, but seldom was it an attractive option for eastern-based horsemen. That’s mainly because there’s always been plenty of green grass and rich opportunities at Saratoga.

That won’t change.

However, by parlaying a successful Breeders’ Cup hosting gig into an invasion-of-the-money-snatchers Turf Festival Del Mar’s fall season now is on the map! Prominent owners and trainers based east of the mighty Mississippi, finally, have experienced Del Mar first-hand. November 2017 riches unearthed ‘Where the Turf Meets the Surf’ will bring them back again and again—except, of course, during Saratoga!

Santa Anita management also would like to attract more right-coast stables to an upcoming winter/spring meet—just like in the old days. However, they’d like a more meaningful relationship than just a one-night stand. That’s why they’ve instituted a ‘Ship and Stay’ program designed to lure outfits west for an extended term.

With the kind of success eastern invaders enjoyed this past weekend at Del Mar, perhaps racing in California, especially for turf horses, might not be such a bad idea. Forget those ‘deep, lush’ eastern courses with plenty of ‘cut’ and ‘give’ in the ground. Wide, expansive turns are overrated, too. Some runners, apparently, would rather channel their inner Willie Mosconi on ‘pool-table’ quick Southern California grass layouts with turns like hoops around a barrel.

And what about the competition? Based on what we witnessed over the weekend, it’s clear that California-based runners aren’t anywhere near the level of, say, New York’s finest. What’s that old racetrack saw about keeping yourself in the best possible company and your horse in the worst? If you’ve got a turf horse…Go West young/old man!

During Santa Anita’s winter meet, there’s turf racing ‘till the cars come home! And stuck in LA traffic that’s way later than when the cows usually check in. Plus, since it never rains in California, when a race is carded for turf there it usually remains on that surface. SoCal horseplayers don’t even know what a Main Track Only entry is. They think MTO has something to do with the local transportation system.

Of course, if eastern-based outfits plan to ship dirt horses west, it’s best if they not count on winning very often. While it’s apparent Golden State turf horses are toothless, season-long, nationwide evidence proves that LA-based dirt horses are Great Whites.

A few days ago, (obviously before he had the opportunity to read this blog) Craig Bernick, president of Glen Hill Farm, announced on Twitter that his outfit would not be racing horses in Southern California because of “frustration” over “races not going and horses being AE/excluded.”

Bernick’s tweet explained, “For Del Mar summer, Santa Anita, and Del Mar foal (sic) we were 26-6-2-5. It’s our favorite place to race and horses fit in well, but…”

  1. D. Thornton, writer for the Thoroughbred Daily News, interviewed Bernick by phone and the grandson of Glen Hill Farm founder Leonard Lavin explained that he had found west coast racing a difficult place to develop horses because condition book races either overfill or don’t get carded.

According to Thornton’s article, Bernick said, “We race a lot of homebreds, and frankly, they’re not all superstars. And horses that aren’t top, top quality and don’t get through their conditions quickly to run in stakes, there are better places to run them than in California. Back east, good horses can run in New York, Monmouth, Delaware, Maryland. You can ship to Pennsylvania and you can even ship to Woodbine. In California, you’re [isolated] there.”

Clearly, Bernick’s frustrated and has to do what’s right for Glen Hill Farm, but he left the door open to possibly returning to race in California. “…Tom [Proctor] and I will have the discussion again when Del Mar rolls around if we want to go again.”

No doubt about it, California racing is conducted on an island. But that can be a positive, too. Especially for mainlanders when they ship in and steal all the coconuts like they did last weekend. After all, even though the grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, you still have to mow it!

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Grass is Greener

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