The tattooed young man with the braided, six-inch-long goatee looked to many old-timers sitting in the Del Mar grandstand like an alien transported to the winner's circle on a ship from outer space.
Turns out the odd-looking fellow was one of the boys in a rock band playing later that evening as part of the "four o'clock Friday" concert series at the thriving seaside racetrack. Del Mar's marketing department has the band introduced each Friday late in the day's racing card--much to the delight of the young people the concerts bring to the track and to the horror of the older crowd that believes the music of the track's founder, Bing Crosby, is still hip.
Four young fans who looked as if they rode surfboards to the track were poring over a shared Daily Racing Form and debating how to bet the last race of the day before heading down to the area where the band would play. One suggested a simple $2 bet and dividing up their remaining funds among them. "Dude," one of his friends said, "we're up $42. Let's bet it all!"
"That's music to my ears," track president Joe Harper said when someone relayed the story to him. "That's what we're hoping to do with the concerts. Bring a new crowd in here and get them to bet."
The betting lines were longest in the areas closest to where the concert was to take place, a sign that many of those music fans indeed were playing the horses. The entire place had a buzz to it, thanks to the decidedly young crowd of twentysomethings.
"Things are going so good it's almost scary," said Del Mar's executive vice president Craig Fravel. "Racing's an 'in' thing in San Diego, and everything we're doing seems to be working." Fravel cited enthusiastic support from the local media and broader awareness in the region thanks to TVG and its daily two-hour cable telecasts throughout Southern California on Fox Sports West 2. "One of our weekend telecasts was the third-highest rated program in Los Angeles that day," Fravel said.
In addition to the post-race rock concerts on Fridays and jazz music on Wednesdays, Del Mar has a variety of other promotions and activities, ranging from the "family fun club" in the infield, to trackside educational programs on weekend mornings, plenty of handicapping seminars, and even a day-care facility in association with the local YMCA. Del Mar attracts as young and enthusiastic a crowd as you will find at any racetrack in the United States. The bottom line: on-track business is up about 10% through the first two weeks of the meeting. Appearance Fees
Some tracks have offered appearance fees or other incentives to attract star horses for as long as races have been run. They are a fact of life in a very competitive business and are a big part of the broader sports and entertainment world. But dangling an incentive to run in front of anyone but a horse's owner is wrong.
The case of Monmouth Park's Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I) and the $50,000 appearance fee paid to Bob Baffert, the trainer of War Emblem, is complicated by the fact that Baffert is one of racing's only legitimate human celebrities. As Monmouth Park's general manager, Robert Kulina, said to Daily Racing Form: "Bob Baffert is the most recognizable force in the industry. He did television for us last year, signed autographs, and is a star in his own right."
Nevertheless, any incentive to attract a star horse for the Haskell or any other race should be arranged in concert with the owner of the horse in question, and not the trainer. Once the decision whether or not to run has been made, then appearance or promotional fees for trainers, jockeys, or anyone else associated with the horse is fair game.