Inside Track: Under the Wire

Inside Track: Under the Wire
Photo: courtesy of Del Mar
- by Mac McBride

Racing’s photo-finish camera was invented for and first used at Del Mar—and as Thoroughbred fans know, there are photo finishes virtually every day at the track, some of them so tight the phrase “won by a whisker” is literally true.

But this year a photo-finish camera may be needed even before the first race is run. The experienced crews that Del Mar Thoroughbred Club employs to turn a fairgrounds full of Ferris wheels and deep-fried Twinkie stands into an idyllic racing mecca are in for some serious testing.

Previously, the shortest turnaround time from fairgrounds to racetrack was 13 days. But this year the gauntlet has been hurled down to a turnaround that starts July 7 and ends with the track’s opening July 16. That’s only nine days, but Del Mar plant superintendent Robert Sanchez is ready to get the heavy-duty transformation done.

More than a million folks will have poured onto the 350 acres that make up the Del Mar fairgrounds, the site of one of the nation’s premier “country” fairs, between June 14 and July 6. Right behind them come more than 2,000 ready-to-roll Thoroughbreds looking for a clean bed of straw to lie in and a racetrack to run on in a location that looks gorgeous and functions well.

Enter Sanchez and his hardy lads, working 12-hour shifts and ready to clock more if called upon. Sanchez, a lifelong San Diego County resident, knows all about converting a fair to a track. He did it first in 1971 when he was working a summer gig at Del Mar while pursuing a degree in architectural design at Arizona State University. He hasn’t missed a summer at Del Mar since.

Sanchez works with eight foremen to get the job done. Their crews consist of plumbers, electricians, painters, carpenters, Teamsters, laborers, gardeners, and mechanics. In concert with fairgrounds workers, Del Mar’s staff is going full tilt the morning of July 7, when the last of the fair stragglers have moved on, but the fragrances of cinnamon buns and barbecue still fill the air.

The first of nearly 2,000 gallons of new paint is applied to everything that doesn’t move. Forty-four hundred bales of hay are fluffed into 2,200 stalls. Soon, 3,500 tons of sand will go down in the stable area roadways. Then the horses start to gallop on the Polytrack racing strip.

Parking lots are striped, wires strung, pari-mutuel machines installed, furniture brought in, entrance gates positioned, drains flushed clean, tables and chairs dusted, trailers wheeled in, kitchens fired up, TV monitors flickered on, boxes lugged, kegs rolled, and windows washed as people scramble about in a frantic dance that is choreographed down to the minute.

Nine days—nine days—to do a total makeover that would make a Hollywood stage manager strut. And do it right. And do it on time. And do it so that your average racing fan coming through the gates will take a look around and say: “Lookin’ good—just like I remember it.”

By the time it’s all done, there will be some tired troops in General Sanchez’ army.

“We know it won’t be easy,” Sanchez said. “But we know we can do it. You can bet on that.”

So in that photo finish, make Del Mar the winner. Not by a whisker, but by plenty of muscle, a good bit of sweat, and a lot of savvy heart.

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