The end of July provided two banner weekends for Del Mar.
On July 23, California Chrome and Dortmund engaged in a stretch-run battle to remember during the San Diego Handicap (gr. II). The excitement was matched a week later, when Stellar Wind and Beholder offered their own stretch duel in a dramatic edition of the Clement L. Hirsch (gr. I).
But on the opposite coast each weekend, Southern California's younger stars did their best to grab their share of the spotlight.
A day after the San Diego, Songbird put on the most impressive performance of her career in the Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course, and a day after the Hirsch, Exaggerator proved the best in the Betfair.com Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth Park, where he defeated fellow Southern California-based colts American Freedom and Nyquist .
It was yet another reminder of a significant void in the Del Mar stakes schedule. Although Del Mar features ample opportunity for 3-year-olds of both genders on the turf, the options for non-state-bred sophomore races on the main track are essentially limited to two stakes races—the $100,000 Shared Belief (formerly the El Cajon) for 3-year-olds Aug. 26 and the Torrey Pines Stakes (gr. III) for 3-year-old fillies Aug. 28.
The July 2016 examples are just the latest in a long line. In recent years, star horses like American Pharoah and California Chrome trained locally in Southern California during their 3-year-old seasons but shipped elsewhere for summer and early fall starts.
"Everything is grass, grass, grass," said trainer Art Sherman, who sent California Chrome to Parx Racing for the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) in September 2014. "If your horse can't run on grass, there's no dirt races. I think that hurts them and people go someplace else. The money, all over the country, is great. You can go to Indiana and run for $500,000, but here you get $250,000 or $300,000 and it's a big thing."
The competition with tracks to the east, many of which have boosted purses for 3-year-old stakes with money added from gaming, is one of the main hurdles for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, according to executive vice president of racing and industry relations Tom Robbins.
Robbins said he and other top brass at the Del Mar have considered making a move to add 3-year-old races in recent years, but the challenges outweigh the potential gains. Del Mar already cut funds to graded stakes and overnight purses in 2016 because of decreased handle and adding 3-year-old races lucrative enough to draw top talent would likely require taking funds from other divisions, which would not be met kindly by horsemen.
"We're faced with a seven- or eight-week meet and there's obviously money issues to put together a race like that," Robbins said. "What would a major 3-year-old race be, as well? Would ($500,000) keep horses here when you're facing the Haskell at $1 million or the Travers (gr. I) at $1.25 million?
"In a matter of two weeks time, you have the Indiana Derby (gr. II) for ($500,000), then you go to New York, which runs a $100,000 race (the Curlin Stakes) the day before the $600,000 (Jim Dandy, gr. II), and the Haskell the next day. Then comes the West Virginia Derby (gr. II) for $750,000 the next weekend and the Travers after that."
But the desire from local trainers to stay close to home—if financially viable—is unquestionable, especially with the Breeders' Cup so often in the region.
"It might be smart for Del Mar, because if you look at all the races, they're headlined by West Coast horses," said trainer Keith Desormeaux, who decided to keep Exaggerator on the East Coast following his Triple Crown campaign. "Even for a horse like Dalmore, who won the Affirmed (gr. III, July 2 at Santa Anita Park). What do I do with him? Not a trainer in the world wants to travel. That's a no-brainer. We want to race where we train, but we also have to make money for our owners.
"So, if the lucrative purses are out of town, we have to go. But I don't know how Del Mar could do it. There's a huge desire from management and trainers, but it's a matter of economics. We just don't want to decimate the stakes program. It's barely keeping up now."
There is, of course, always the option for 3-year-olds to run against older horses at Del Mar. The San Diego, Hirsch, Cougar II (gr. III), Bing Crosby (gr. I), Pacific Classic (gr. I), and Pat O'Brien (gr. I) are all races for 3-year-olds and up. But the trend seems to be moving against running high-profile colts and fillies against older horses, considering the money available in 3-year-old restricted races in the east, even though horses like Shared Belief (2014) and Dullahan (2012) have won Del Mar's signature Pacific Classic in recent years.
Trainer Doug O'Neill flirted with running Nyquist against California Chrome and Dortmund in the San Diego, but ultimately opted for the Haskell.
"Believe me, (owners) Paul and Zillah (Reddam) were leaning hard not to put him on a plane with the Breeders' Cup back at Santa Anita," O'Neill said. "But running against his age group and maintaining that grade I status took over."
For a filly like Stellar Wind, who won three 3-year-old races in 2015 at Santa Anita leading into Del Mar—the Santa Ysabel (gr. III), Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I), and Summertime Oaks (gr. II)—she simply had to wait for the Torrey Pines.
"When you come down here, you know what the schedule is," trainer John Sadler said of the Curlin filly. "I actually worked her on turf with the idea of maybe running her in the Del Mar Oaks (gr. IT) or the San Clemente (gr. IIT), but I didn't like her work. She's not a turf horse. Then there's one race and it's only for $100,000.
"We looked at the Cotillion (gr. I, at Parx), but that required shipping and that's why we ended up in the Torrey Pines. I've long said we need a good 3-year-old colt race and a 3-year-old filly race, because look at what's happened. Two of our best horses are running on the East Coast.
"They may not be able to get enough money to do a mega race, and they could lose a Derby winner anyway, but you could certainly attract horses like American Freedom, Stellar Wind, or a Songbird."
With Los Alamitos Race Course likely to get its summer dates back in 2017, the presence of the Los Alamitos Derby (gr. II) in early July will fill a gap, but also close Del Mar's window for a potential early-summer 3-year-old prep. Los Alamitos lost those dates in July to Santa Anita in 2016, which forced the Los Alamitos Derby (formerly the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park) to September.
But barring a major sponsorship deal or another revenue stream, the prospects of Del Mar adding nationally competitive 3-year-old stakes is a longshot. One of two elite summer destinations in the country for Thoroughbred racing will likely have to stay in its lane for the time being.
"To throw another 3-year-old race in the mix—where some of these tracks are throwing a half-million, $750,000, and a million just to get five horses—I fight this battle every year," Robbins said. "I never say never. We talk about it as a group every year, and we lay out the pros and cons, but money doesn't drop from the sky like it does for (the New York Racing Association). We're a little bit jealous, but that's the reality. That's what we're faced with."