Del Mar: They're off, albeit slowly

DEL MAR, Calif. -- They're off and running on Polytrack at Del Mar. And running. And running. They still might be out there.

The "Polytrack era," as track commentator Trevor Denman called it when the gate opened for Wednesday's second race, began with a six-furlong race for California-bred maiden fillies and mares. This is a group that, on conventional dirt, might have run in the 1:10 to 1:11 range. But when the clock finally stopped after the race, the board read 1:13.95. It's a new era all right, for horses and handicappers.

"It's a very tiring surface," jockey Richard Migliore said after he dismounted from Peace by Peace, who finished last in the six-horse field, 11o3/4 lengths behind the victorious Special Smoke. "They're gripping it, but it's a lot different from anything they've ever been on. It's going to take some time for some of them to get used to it."

As an aside to handicappers, Migliore added, "You're going to want a horse that makes one run. You don't want a horse that's going to be fighting you."

The fractions for the race were 22.68 seconds for the opening quarter, 47.09 for a half-mile, and 1:00.29 for five furlongs. It took 26.86 seconds to complete the final quarter-mile. Special Smoke ($6.60), who had raced once previously, was favored. She was ridden by Jon Court and is trained by Ray Bell.

With the focus for Del Mar's meeting on its new Polytrack surface, the track opened Wednesday with, incongruously, a race on the turf.

The popular Oceanside Stakes, which had been split into two divisions from 1989 through last year, was split three ways this year, with the first division, worth $84,200, run as the opener.

Ten a Penny ($4.80), making his U.S. debut after winning 4 of 5 in Great Britain, rallied from fifth to first in the six-horse field to score by 1o1/2 lengths over Unusual Suspect, with Bernasconi third. Ten a Penny was timed in 1:35.51 for one mile on firm turf.

Michael Baze rode Ten a Penny for trainer Craig Dollase, who, albeit briefly, was the meet's leading trainer.

"I'll take my 20 minutes of fame," Dollase said, laughing.

The Polytrack era began a half-hour later, following a ribbon-cutting ceremony overseen by Joe Harper, Del Mar's president.

On a day when thunderstorms wiped out the card at Belmont, the tens of thousands who arrived at Del Mar were blissfully ignorant of anything outside their fair-weathered cocoon. It was a delightful summer day, with a high temperature of 76 degrees, no humidity, and very few clouds.

Del Mar's opener is one of the highlights of the Southern California racing calendar, and is one of the premier social events for those who live in and around San Diego. Befitting the day's importance, a slew of popular local athletes were scheduled to be in attendance, including Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, last year's most valuable player in the National Football League.

Others scheduled to attend included football players Drew Brees, Donnie Edwards, John Lynch, Junior Seau, and Tony Gonzalez; former basketball coaches Bill Frieder and Jerry Tarkanian - who live in Del Mar - and boxer Sugar Shane Mosley.

Traffic off Interstate 5, the Via de la Valle exit, and roads leading into the track were congested more than 90 minutes before the day's first race. On the apron adjacent to the track, scores of fans, most wearing shorts, sat in beach chairs and downed beers. A few fans who couldn't wait for the local action were gathered under a television showing the races from Santa Rosa.

At the railing adjoining the saddling paddock, fans began to congregate more than an hour before the first race. And a few yards away, near the grandstand entrance, fans in elegant hats from the Del Mar Hat Co. and self-made, curious creations lined up to compete in the track's annual opening-day hat contest. One gentleman had a faux tote board on his head, with the words "Del Mar 2007" across the front. His chiropractor was sure to thank him for the business Thursday morning.

One of the special highlights of opening day is hearing Denman, the classy track commentator who takes a vacation following Santa Anita's winter meeting. Wednesday began Denman's 24th consecutive season calling the races here.

"It only feels like it's been two," an enthusiastic Denman said as he arrived for work. "What a day."

In addition to Polytrack, there were a few more additions and changes. Del Mar has installed the Trakus system, which uses computer chips embedded in saddle towels to track runners during the race. The information is displayed on the infield video board while the races are being run, just as at Keeneland and Woodbine.

John Lies, the track announcer at Lone Star Park, will handle the bulk of the intertrack television assignments this year. Replay kiosks from Post Time Technologies are using the presentation from RaceReplays.com. And Del Mar upgraded the quality of its gift shop, renamed Silks.

One thing had not changed, though: The great anticipation that greets an opening day at Del Mar. When the horses left the gate for the opener, the crowd erupted. The party had begun.