The 2017 Breeders' Cup at Del Mar
When looking at Del Mar's storied history, multiple dates stand out among the most memorable in the track's timeline. Opening day on July 3, 1937 will inevitably and deservedly be on the list, as will Labor Day 1970 when Bill Shoemaker overtook John Longden to become the winningest jockey in the world. August 10, 1991, the day of the very first Pacific Classic, ranks highly, as does the 1996 renewal when Dare and Go pulled off one of the most shocking upsets of all time when he defeated the heavily favored Cigar in the latter's quest to move past Citation with seventeen consecutive victories.
The four dates just mentioned are all worthy ones. But two more dates deserve inclusion in the conversation: November 3 and 4, 2017.
On those pair of afternoons, Del Mar experienced something new in its eighty-year history, one that did not seem possible fifteen to twenty years earlier.
For the first time, the Breeders' Cup came to the seaside venue.
Now, the autumn event was no stranger to Southern California when it arrived at Del Mar. Santa Anita had played host to it numerous times, and it made a couple of stops to Hollywood Park during the 1980s and 90s. But it had not yet visited Del Mar due to the fact that the track only hosted live racing in the summer for virtually all of its history. Traditionally, fall dates went to Hollywood Park going back to 1981 when the Home of Champions hosted its first autumn session.
But everything changed in 2013.
That was the final year Hollywood Park was in business, which created a seismic impact on the local racing landscape. Santa Anita and Del Mar split the dates, and the latter track found itself with a second meet. This was actually not unprecedented, however. While Del Mar is known for taking center stage in Southern California each summer, there was a brief time when it attempted a fall meeting. The lone exception came in 1967, but it did not draw a lot of business, so the experiment was halted after that one try.
But the circuit was in a very different time nearly four decades later, and the Bing Crosby Season was formed in 2014 after Hollywood Park left the scene. Three years later, Del Mar was holding the first of two of its biggest days ever. With tens of thousands in the stands, it played host to Breeders' Cup XXXIV.
Along with the undercard, four Breeders' Cup races were part of the Friday program. Kicking off the quartet was the Juvenile Fillies Turf, and Rushing Fall pulled off a determined drive in the stretch to take the lead and win. That was followed by Southern California's Battle of Midway and Flavien Prat finding more in the stretch to prevail in the Dirt Mile, Mendelssohn beating a large field in the Juvenile Turf, and Forever Unbridled holding off local horse Abel Tasman and Mike Smith in the Distaff. What's more, Zenyatta Stakes winner Paradise Woods took third with Flavien Prat aboard.
With day one in the books, and with fans watching in the stands and infield, Del Mar produced a big crowd and millions of dollars in handle as the hometown horses did well on the track.
A twelve-race card was on tap for Saturday, with nine of the races being Breeders' Cup events. Once more, members of the home circuit did well as the day progressed:
-Mike Smith piloted Caledonia Road to victory in the Juvenile Fillies as Bob Baffert saddled Alluring Star to second place with Southern California regular Joe Talamo aboard.
-Trainer Peter Miller scored a one-two in the Turf Sprint with Stormy Liberal beating Richard's Boy at the wire.
-Drayden Van Dyke came in third with Cambodia in the Filly and Mare Turf, and Cambodia won Del Mar's Grade II Yellow Ribbon Handicap and John C. Mabee Stakes at the track's summer meet a couple months back.
-Miller saddled another winner in Roy H, who got a perfect stalking trip in the Sprint with Kent Desormeaux en route to victory.
-Blackjackcat, winner of two stakes at Del Mar over the summer, came home third in the Mile, giving Desormeaux another placing for conditioner Mark Glatt.
-Prat achieved another top three result with Grade I FrontRunner Stakes runner-up Solomini, and Del Mar Futurity champion Bolt d'Oro overcame a wide trip to take a good third with Corey Nakatani in the irons.
-Pacific Classic winner Collected and Martin Garcia gave Gun Runner a battle in the Classic before getting second to the future Horse of the Year,and Travers Stakes champion West Coast earned the show spot to clinch Champion Three-Year Old honors while teaming with Javier Castellano. That gave Baffert a two-three result in the Classic.
After two days of world class Thoroughbred action, Del Mar management could be proud of the work they did. Handle was strong across the board, despite attendance not being as large due to Del Mar being a smaller venue than other tracks that have held a Breeders' Cup. Still, everyone wanted to be involved in the programs, and full fields collectively brought forth over $160 million in overall handle.
The praise given to Del Mar was effusive, and there is no doubt it led to the track getting the right to host the 2021 iteration. But going back to 2017, those two days in November were red-letter dates for Del Mar. There was a time when it seemed impossible the Breeders' Cup would ever come to San Diego County. But it happened, and it raised the stature of a legendary bastion of racing.
Del Mar has long been known for its slogan, "Where the Turf Meets the Surf." But now, it can always call itself a Breeders' Cup venue.
And the Breeders' Cup came during an already significant time for Del Mar, for the track hosted the extravaganza during its eightieth season in business. The timing was simply perfect. And it was appropriate that the Southern California contingent performed so well throughout the two cards. The circuit was ready for Breeders' Cup weekend, and it took command from the beginning.
And that made for a grand weekend in Southern California racing.