The Breeders' Cup Forum: Down at Old Del Mar - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Down at Old Del Mar

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper first came to the seaside track north of San Diego, Calif., in 1977 after serving as executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association for six years. The transformation of the once-sleepy track over the ensuing three decades is nothing short of remarkable.

Under Harper's leadership Del Mar has become one of the most progressive racetracks in North America in terms of customer service, fan-friendly innovations and through the creation of an entertainment environment that often goes beyond that of a traditional racetrack. Assisted by a modern facility rebuilt in the early 1990s and a racing and stakes program that is among the best in the country, Del Mar is now a national leader in daily average attendance and handle.

Harper's steady leadership and low-key style have served him well in other organizations, from the University of Arizona Racetrack Industry Program, where he's been a member of the advisory board, to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Winner's Foundation, and many others – both locally and nationally – where he has been an invaluable board member.

(Note to readers: In Joe Harper's reply to the first question about new Breeders' Cup president Craig Fravel, an error in transcription had him saying  that Fravel “deviously” left some big shoes to fill at Del Mar. That word should have been “obviously.” We'll withhold judgment on whether or not Fravel has any devious tendencies. In the meantime, we apologize for the error.)

How are you and your team filling the void left behind by Craig Fravel's departure to take the position of CEO of Breeders' Cup?

Craig obviously left some big shoes to fill, but we've got a great executive management team in place with Mike Ernst, Tom Robbins, Craig Dado and Josh Rubinstein.  We've divided up Craig's responsibilities and I'm very confident things will run smoothly.  So far I've been very pleased with the results.

Former Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed selling state-owned properties, including the Del Mar fairgrounds and racetrack, to help relieve California's budget crisis.  Where does that stand today with a Jerry Brown having been elected governor?  Everything we're hearing is that the new governor is not in favor of selling state property at this time and this is on the back burner.

Before intertrack wagering, I assume a much bigger percentage of your customers came from the Los Angeles area.  Del Mar has had to rebuild its market from within the San Diego area.  How was that accomplished? 

Actually we still get close to 30% of our patrons from LA/Orange County.  But with that being said, Del Mar has truly become the “place to be” in San Diego.  At the risk of sounding like we're patting ourselves on the back, we've done a great job of building the brand of Del Mar and providing a total entertainment experience.

What are the biggest changes we'll see in 2011?

We've got quite a few new initiatives this year that I believe folks will truly enjoy.  My kids are especially excited about our new “mobile application” – which allows patrons the ability to wager on-track, watch live video and get other information from their smart phones.  The marketing guys tell me our concert line-up is our best ever.  I'll have to take their word for it, as I've never heard of “Black Rebel Motorcycle Club” or “The Airborne Toxic Event.”  Also, our new wagers – the $.50 Players Pick  Five and 10% takeout head-to-head bet on our Saturday feature race – have been very well received.  Finally, we are going to sweeten every Sunday Pick Six pool with a guaranteed $50,000 carryover.   I've got a feeling this one is going to be a big hit.

This will be year five of Polytrack.  Are you satisfied that it's delivered as promised?  Why or why not?

The debate over racing surfaces is obviously a hotly contested one.  From our standpoint the single biggest issue is safety, and it's hard to argue with the positive results in this regard since we've had Polytrack.  Simply, our fatalities and injuries are way down.  Has it been perfect?  I'll be the first to admit, no.  However, I have all the confidence in the world in track superintendent, Richard Tedesco.

Filling races has become a major problem in California.  You've got incentives for owners to bring out of state horses to race at Del Mar this season.  Any indication of whether or not that program will have an impact?

The interest in this program had been overwhelmingly positive.  So much so that our CFO remarked to me that we may be over budget on fulfillment of the program.  This would be a great problem to have!

Looking at declining foal crops – nationally and especially in California – is it realistic to project racing five days a week in the future?

We'd love to continue to be able to offer five quality days of racing per week, but we're obviously at the mercy of the horse population/entries.

Would a longer meeting or second race meeting at Del Mar be successful in the event that Hollywood Park is developed as its owners have said they want to do?

We'd very much like to have a second season at Del Mar.  What that looks like and when it might be are both up-in-the-air.  However, we're in the midst of going through the process of what needs to be done to the facility for additional days.

Will the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club apply to host a future Breeders' Cup?  If so, what changes need to be made before that can happen?

Yes.  Probably the biggest issue is re-working the turf course – both widening it and putting in a new turf surface that will handle rain.  We feel very confident that San Diego – California's second largest city – would strongly support a Breeders' Cup.  When you look at how the area has embraced other special events – Super Bowls, golf's U.S. Open, Comic-Con – a Breeders' Cup at Del Mar would be a home-run.

Paulick Report Icon

Receive daily headlines, breaking news alerts, promotions, and much more!

Become An Insider

Support our journalism and access bonus content on our Patreon stream

Learn More