Talkin' Horses - Live Discussions

Joe Harper
Del Mar President
and General Manager

Friday, Aug. 8, 2008

Joe Harper

Joe Harper took over the management of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in 1978. During this period Harper has overseen Del Mar's emergence as one of the nation's top racetracks for daily average handle and attendance. He was also instrumental in overseeing its $9-million Polytrack installation in 2007 and $80-million grandstand reconstruction project completed in 1993.

Harper came to Del Mar from Santa Anita where he served as Executive Vice President for the Oak Tree Racing Association, whose meet runs annually each autumn at the Arcadia, Calif. track.

In addition to his duties at Del Mar, Harper remains involved in a wide range of interests. He is a member of The Jockey Club, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and a member of the Advisory Board for the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program. He is a past President of the Thoroughbred Racing Association (TRA) and a former president, and still a board member, of the Federation of California Racing Associations. He also serves as Chairman of the Advisory Board of the California Center for Equine Health and Performance at U.C. Davis and as the chairman of the Winners Foundation.

Harper is also President and Trustee of the Cecil B. deMille Foundation. A native Californian, he is the grandson of deMille, the famed movie producer and director who concluded his career with the epic, The Ten Commandments.

Santa Monica, CA:
Mr. Harper, please comment on the conflict of interest that pick 6 carryovers create. Public perception is that with a few large carryovers, the betting handle for the meet will rise and maybe provide the ability to raise purses.

Harper:
I'm not sure it's a "conflict" but I can see how it would appear to be one. It is in the financial best interest to the track and horsemen if there are big carryovers. Or, to put it another way, if the favorites get beat. Contrary to popular belief that is not something we have the power to do.

Lexington, KY:
Mr. Harper, One of my fondest memories, in my young career in the horse racing industry, was at Del Mar. In 2004 I participated in the DMTC Internship Program which gave me a comprehensive view of how to manage a race track. Could you comment on that internship program and any other efforts the DMTC makes to give back to the industry?

Harper:
The internship program at Del Mar and many other companies in this industry, is extremely important. The future of this game is in the hands of those coming up. Not us old guys. Giving them the understanding of how everything works is imperative. We have for years taken an intern every year from the University of Arizona and at times one from the University of Limerick in Ireland. They all have been smart and eager to learn.

Greenville, NC:
Joe, why in the world do you have an exclusive with TVG? It cuts out thousands of bettors who do not want multiple accounts.

Harper:
The exclusive contract with TVG was entered into by many of the tracks. This was early on in the process and was done so in part due to the extremely high cost of putting together a network. At the time there were no other viable companies to go to. I wouldn't second guess our exclusivity contract but it might have been a bit too long a term.

Grants Pass, OR:
Will Del Mar ever be in position to host the Breeders Cup World Thoroughbred Championships? It would be a great setting to a great race program. Perhaps they could secure a fall meet sometime in the future.

Harper:
The Breeder's Cup and Del Mar have been talking for some time. We are both eager to have a B.C. here at Del Mar. We have to widen the turf course before that can happen. That project will start shortly. Look for 2011 or 2012.

El Cajon, CA:
After seeing the disaster of the first 2 weeks last year, why didn't you order water to be added to the track in the afternoons? I believe it caused you lose handle, and to this day have not had the big players return.

Harper:
I would hardly call last year a disaster when the number of fatalities on the main track was reduced by 70%. As a matter of fact the total handle was up that year and there was virtually no change in the percentage of winning favorites or percentage of favorites in the money. As to putting water on the track we were advised not to do this by the Polytrack people. The trainers committee agreed stating that it was very safe; no horses had been injured in the p.m. so we left it alone. This year we had considerable data to look at that was unavailable last year: Temperature of the Polytrack and the air at different times of the day. We also were afraid to put unfiltered water on it due to contamination. During the winter we put in a filtration system and added some wax. The track seems to be much more consistent now.

Newark DE:
Did you ever consider a movie career, and did you have any part in the great movie The Ten Commandments?

Harper:
I never considered a movie career as an actor. I did go to work in the mail room at MGM when I got out (tossed out) of my last college. That led to a job as a cinema photographer (mainly at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park) I had an extremely small role in "The Greatest Show on Earth" and even a smaller one in "The Ten Commandments". Both pictures won Oscars. I retired as an actor at age 11...

Louisville, KY:
If Hollywood shuts down next year, would Del Mar take any of their dates?

Harper:
If and when Hollywood Park shuts down the southern California racing calendar will be negotiated by the tracks and the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC). I would think we will have additional dates. Perhaps a week or two in the summer where, in my opinion, we should race five days a week not six. A few days in the fall might be in the cards as well.

Louisville, KY:
After Lava Man's retirement, do you think Del Mar would name a race after him?

Harper:
Lava Man certainly deserves to have a race named after him.  We'll see.

Virginia Beach, VA:
As a long time fan of thoroughbred racing, I have been concerned with the direction it has taken over the years. Horse breaking down, low attendance and probably too many problems to mention here. What can be done and what is being done to cure the problems that are overwhelming racing? Here in Virginia, the only track struggles to have 800 people in attendance. That is embarrassing! If the industry does not do something soon, horse racing will be an afterthought. I know that it will never return to the glory days when tracks overflowed, but we have to do something before it is too late.

Harper:
The sad part here is, that even if we do manage to solve our current obvious problems, that will still not put more people in the grandstands of racetracks. We have a huge marketing problem and I wish I had an answer. What's worked at Del Mar is concerts, family fun days, signature drinks, hat contests, give-a ways, micro-brew festivals, reggae festivals and everything else under the sun we can think of to get the "non" race goer into the plant. Have we made any new fans for racing? Perhaps a few, but I don't see them fighting their way to Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. We have probably just made new fans of Del Mar and not racing.

Orange County, CA:
Mr. Harper, what are your thoughts on Curlin staying back east on the dirt? Does it concern you that the future superstars will follow and try to avoid the synthetic?

Harper:
I wish Curlin was coming to Del Mar but staying back east was a very understandable decision. He likes it there. Traveling back and forth never did anyone (horse or man) any good. I don't think he was trying to avoid synthetic tracks. One will be waiting for him at Breedersí Cup.

Lexington, KY:
What happened with you and Mr. Zayat?

Harper:
Mr. Zayat and I had a basic difference of opinion.  He wanted a fast track for his speed horses and I wanted a slower track for safety.  I was not going to change the surface so he left.

Carlsbad, CA:
In light of the economic issues facing the public, why did the track raise concessions prices on opening day Del Mar? I donít think this conveyed the correct message to your customers.

Harper:
Concession prices were raised slightly and on selected items. I think you will find them in line with prices at most major sports or entertainment venues. That being said I wish we could lower them but the fact is the cost of the products went up higher than what was passed through to the patron. We increased our admission prices for opening day only. It costs a lot more money to put that day on so the increases were that day only.

Encinitas, CA:
Mr. Harper, I really want to applaud you for your stand on protecting horses, whether it was not caving in to Ahmed Zayat's demands to speed up the Polytrack last season or insisting your vets scratch any and all sore horses before they enter the gate. I wish you would be the national commissioner of racing. Racing needs more conscientious leaders like you. How long do you intend to stay on as President of Del Mar?

Harper:
Thank you.  I wouldn't wish being the commissioner of racing on my worst enemy.  A noted commissioner of a professional sport once told me that the toughest part of his job was dealing with all the egos in the room.  I don't think my usual easy-going personality would last long at that position. As for hanging in here at Del Mar.  I hope to be around for a while.  There are a lot of smart young people behind me here and the fact is that Del Mar has been in their hands for some time.

Glenolden, PA:
When does Del Mar plan on inviting The All-Star Buglers out for the Pacific Classic? The group is a hit all over the country. They have performed at the Breeders Cup 7 times. I think your fans would love it. Thanks!

Harper:
I love them! I promise to consider it for next year.

Pacific Beach, CA:
Joe, I would like to thank you for offering so many concerts at Del Mar. It makes it easier to bring my non-racing friends out to the races. Do you have estimates of how many fans of Gavin Rossdale and Gnarls Barkley have returned to the races after their respective concerts?

Harper:
We have found that over the few years we have been putting on concerts the fans have been arriving a little earlier every year. The concerts are a great tool to introduce the race track to the guy who would otherwise never come out here. Once they get the "Del Mar experience" some come back.

Del Mar, CA:
What happened to the replay show on TVG? It isn’t shown like it has been in the past.

Harper:
Like most replay shows they have given way to the web sites of the tracks. Some are costly to put on.  Some stations only have times that don't work. 

Harrisburg, PA:
Del Mar used to be my favorite meet to wager on until the synthetic track was installed. Do we really know that overall, synthetic tracks are safer than a GOOD dirt track?

Harper:
So far the statistics show that the synthetic tracks are safer. The California tracks have shown a marked decrease in the number of fatal injuries. Only time will tell the whole story. Last year we saw not only a significant reduction in fatalities (70%) but also a fairly large increase in the number of work-outs. Usually this is a good measurement of the number of sound horses on the ground. Are they better than a GOOD dirt track? Dirt tracks are good one day and bad the next. At least that has been my observation over the years. One thing I can tell you. The number of complaints from horsemen since synthetics have been installed has gone way down.

Mission Hills, CA:
How do racetracks plan to grow the fan base in the future as older horseplayers become less involved in wagering due to age, health and death? How will this younger generation learn the art and science of handicapping and will they sit still to watch 2 races every hour?

Harper:
I think I partially answered this in a previous question.  Entice them with something they know about. Expose them to our product. Provide them with ways to learn and give them a reason to come back. And try to keep them entertained while all this is happening.

Canterbury, CT:
Who would you say is the frontrunner for Horse Of The Year, and why? Also, it seems as if the entire female division is packed with talent this year. Ginger Punch, Zenyatta, Hysterical Lady, Indian Blessing, Music Note, Proud Spell, Dreaming Of Anna etc. They just keep snatching up races left and right with amazing consistency. They always bring their best to the track, it's been so exciting to watch. How do you see the Breeders Cup turning out if they all show up? Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.

Harper:
A little early to make predictions on Horse of the Year. Have to see what happens at Breeders’ Cup.  Curlin would be the favorite if he wins. As a father of four daughters I have always been partial to the distaff side.  You are right. This year’s crop is pretty impressive.  Zenyatta's performance last week was incredible. If she remains undefeated through the Cup she has a very good shot at Horse of the Year.

Syracuse, NY:
Who in your mind was the best horse you ever saw race at Del Mar?

Harper:
That's a tough one. Cigar, Best Pal, Ferdinand, Native Diver.  The one that stands out in my mind is Flawlessly.  She won five stakes here and was a two time Eclipse Award winner.  She was also one of the sweetest horses I have ever been around.  Loved people.  You could toss your three-year-old kid in her stall and she'd just nuzzle him.  The great Charlie Whittingham trained her “flawlessly”.

Louisville, KY:
Mr. Harper, Your track is great. My family and I have spent a week at Del Mar the last two years. Any chance of making the breakfast at the track a daily thing like Saratoga? And how about dropping the $8 to park in the morning? Mornings at the track are an ideal way to bring first timers and convert them to lifelong horse players. And a free morning trip to horse paradise cannot be beat.

Harper:
If you're buying breakfast for two or spending $25.00 or more on food your $8.00 parking charge is taken off your bill.  I would like it if we served breakfast every day. Our caterer has some concerns about losing money.  Whatever that is.  I'll talk to him.

Upland, CA:
Water has proven to change the track consistency, perhaps more than it did with dirt. How the track is playing has influence on who has the best chance to win. 85% of the wagering comes from "on line" and players can not know when the water trucks are out. Is there any way to inform the players in a formal way when the water trucks are called on?

Harper:
We put water on the track every day after morning workouts. We put it on in the afternoon only if the surface temperature gets too high.  It would seem a simple solution to put that info on our web site.

Pewee Valley, KY:
With Simulcasting driving most every track's Handle numbers, why would Del Mar elect to have a 10p.m EST post time on Friday's, which means that east coast patrons are wagering 'til 1a.m. Then, racing on Monday seems a bit too much at the end of your six day week. Maybe you can shed some light as to the logic behind it. 

Harper:
The late Fridays are done to enhance on-track attendance.  The success of this promotion more than makes up for any loss of handle with our late races. By the way, our first post time on Fridays is 7:00pm EDT. Our last race goes off about 10:30 EDT. If you're still betting on Del Mar at 1:00am. you must be watching a late night replay show I don't know about.  Give me a call and I'll give you the winners.

Canterbury, CT:
While Curlin and Big Brown hold the edge, one other horse who could steal Horse Of The Year is Zenyatta if she remains undefeated and wins the Breeders’ Cup. What is your opinion?

Harper:
If she remains undefeated and wins B.C., she would sure get my vote. 

Lexington, KY:
What is your best Ted Bassett story?

Harper:
Unfortunately, I never spent enough time with Ted to get any stories I could talk about.  I will tell you that the times my wife Barbara and I spent with Ted and Lucy were memorable. Charm, style, a great sense of humor. He put a lot of life into making Keeneland the success it is today.

Dallas, TX:
Why doesn't Del Mar have its own California-bred stakes day similar to the California Cup , Gold Rush or Sunshine Millions?

Harper:
We have talked about it. Still talking about it. You might see a Cal. Cup one of these years.

Rancho Cucamonga, CA:
Mr. Harper, I have been coming down to Del Mar every summer for 28 years. I look forward to the middle of July like a seven year-old waiting for Christmas. With that said, why is it that Del Mar is never fully prepared for the 43,000 plus visitors it gets every opening day? This is also a problem on Pacific Classic day. There are never enough mutual clerks or concession stands open. Please don't tell me that saving a few bucks is more important than the enjoyment of the fans. 

Harper:
Every concession stand is open and every mutuel clerk we can find is put to work.  Opening day is our biggest day of the year and unfortunately our first day.  It is also a day with the lowest ticket value and the longest transaction time.  That means new fans and every one of those has a question for the clerk.  A bit frustrating for us as well as you patient folks who have been coming for 28 years.  Believe me, saving money on opening day is not something that is on our minds. 

La Costa, CA:
Last year there was a well supported charity poker tournament for Lava Man's groom who was injured in a car accident, was wondering if something like that could be done by the track to help raise money for Thoroughbred retirement farms in California? 

Harper:
Absolutely.  There are currently a number of fund raisers going on during the summer here.  Some are for retirement farms. 

Anaheim, CA:
Just a note to say that I love the track at Del Mar and I hope I have as much hair as you do when I'm your age. I am a resident of Orange County, CA and love to visit Del Mar every summer to leave a deposit. I have always wanted to take the train to Del Mar, however, my buddies tell me that the days of the train dropping you off near the track are gone. They said that the train drops you off at a distant location and that you have to find an alternate way to get to the track. Is this true? Do you think Amtrak could schedule a stop near the track during the season? If they did, I would visit more often and your on-track handle would increase.  

Harper:
Tell your buddies they're wrong.  You can take the train to the Solana Beach station and get on one of our free double-decker busses that will take you right to the front gate. 

Arnold, MO:
In the G3 Sorrento Stakes which was Race 7 on the August 6, 2008, Del Mar program, two fillies #3 Cosmic Queen and #6 Stardom Bound were both owned by C. R. Cono, LLC and trained by Christopher Paasch. Same owner, same trainer, yet they were not coupled for wagering purposes. Why not?    

Harper:
The California Horse Racing Board at its March meeting amended the rule to allow uncoupling of same owner/trainer in graded stakes races.  

Phoenix, AZ:
Since the track has been so fast are the horse coming back sore? I noticed that horses that have had a race over the track are coming back not as sharp as they ran in their first effort.    

Harper:
In checking with a number of the vets and the backside x-ray facility we don't see an abnormal number of sore horses.  Time will tell.  It's pretty early for horses to run back with only 20 days into the meet.

Del Mar, CA:
What are your feelings on retired race horse going to slaughter? What kind of things does DMTC do to support retired race horses?    

Harper:
I hate it.  But the only way to really stop it is to get enough retirement farms to make it work.  Del Mar has, for years, contributed to various retirements facilities and will continue to do so. This should be a major commitment for the entire industry.

Saddle Brook NJ:
Joe, what do you consider the toughest part of your job?    

Harper:
Honestly, I have the greatest job in racing.  I can't think of anything I do as tough. For over thirty years I have looked forward to coming to work every day. Some have been smoother than others but most of those turn into learning experiences.

North Hollywood, CA:
Mr. Harper, what prompted Del Mar to lower purses; is there any chance they will be reinstated before the meet ends?    

Harper:
We are a pretty conservative company.  We felt that if our on -track handle was going to continue at around 8% down and overall handle 2-3% down a 3 1/2% tweak was called for.  If those numbers go up or we get a few pick-six carry-overs then we'll put the $ right back.

Nashville, TN:
Your tie in with San Diego's sports talk radio station, XX 1090AM has been one of the best I've seen, and now the popular morning show team and its listeners have their own stable. Can you see this being extended to other types of media to get them out to the track more often and promoting the sport? Can you mentor other tracks on how this was accomplished?    

Harper:
Those guys finally won a race.  And that's pretty much all they talked about the next day.  We love the relationship we have with the station.  Tracks would do well to similar deals. It starts with a friendship. 

Raton, NM:
I admired the way you stuck to your guns on the polytrack issue last year. While I think that it will take awhile for the new surfaces to get all the wrinkles ironed out I also applaud people like you leading the way. How much have you learned about the surface in the last year?    

Harper:
Like all synthetic tracks you pretty much go to school on yourself.  They are all different and they all are maintained differently.  What works for one doesn't necessarily work on another.  We were fortunate to compile a great amount of data last year that lead us in seemly the right direction this year.  

San Diego. CA:
Please stop the stooping at Del Mar, people are having there vouchers taken from them every day.    

Harper:
I will put my best stooper stopper on it starting tomorrow.  

LAST UPDATED: 1:16 P.M. (ET)

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