Sports Talk: They’re off and running for a special year at Del Mar

Scenes from Opening Day at Del Mar

It’s among the buzz in horse racing circles with the prestigious Breeders’ Cup coming to Del Mar.

“Hey, let’s not forget this little summer meet we have going on,” Joe Harper said.

Harper, the big horse in the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club barn, is ringing in another season. But he does so with an eye toward this fall. That’s when the Breeders’ Cup, the Super Bowl of horse racing, arrives at Del Mar for the first time, on Nov. 3-4.  

This year’s kickoff came July 19, when the seaside oval swelled with bets, booze and beautiful people. It’s an afternoon of North County madness that seldom disappoints.

“It’s fun to see the craziness,” said Harper, a longtime Del Mar resident. “It has a life of its own. Not everyone cares about seeing a horse race, but they do care about being at the place everyone wants to be.”

Harper is here, there, and everywhere and why not? He’s been with the DMTC since 1977, but it’s never been like this.

“It is different,” said Harper, the organization’s CEO. “Once we got the nod for the Breeders’ Cup it kind of opened us to more international attention.”

That came to Harper’s attention last summer, when a jockey was looking for, of all things, the jockey room. He was a newbie at our local favorite.

“This is really nice,” he told Harper. “I had never been out here before.”

It’s a familiar tale for Harper, who’s been beating the drum since 1984 to snag a Breeders’ Cup for Del Mar. He roamed Hollywood Park at that inaugural meet and has been scheming to get it here since.

Among the obstacles — and his biggest selling point — was Del Mar’s location. 

Many of the high-end owners had never ventured this far west when racing in the U.S. Even when Harper made his pitch to the Breeders’ Cup selection committee, it was met with an unfamiliar shrug.

“A lot of those people making the decisions had never been to Del Mar,” Harper said.

Harper kept making hay with Del Mar’s bid. He oversaw a track makeover, which included a renovated grandstand and the widening of the oval track. He put in 20 restaurants, many of the top-shelf variety, to woo the Breeders’ Cup crowd.

He sold Del Mar’s turf-near-the-surf spot, showing the skeptics the track’s locale was more than a line in a song.

“I explained to them what North County was about and really how cool it is,” Harper said.

It figures to be warm on Saturday when Arrogate runs in the San Diego Handicap, prepping for the Pacific Classic on Aug. 19.

“He’s won $17 million in about a year, winning all these amazing races and setting records,” Harper said. “He’s the greatest horse in the world right now.”

Which means Arrogate will join the sport’s other stars for the Breeders’ Cup. Life-size statues of horses commemorating the Breeders’ Cup are already appearing along the North County coast.

But the fall can wait. The Del Mar horses are at the summer gate and that springs open first.

Contact Jay Paris at jparis8@aol.com. Follower him @jparis_sports.

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