Bryce Miller: Del Mar racetrack moves opener to July 10, adjusts racing and safety protocols

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Horse sprint from the gate at the Del Mar racetracks opening day, July 17. The track has worked under new reforms in the wake of a disastrous meet at Santa Anita. - Nelvin C. Cepeda/Los Angeles Times/TNS

SAN DIEGO — You think the logistics of a normal opening day at Del Mar racetrack are tricky? Try putting it on … without fans … during a chilling, unprecedented health crisis … in an industry still squirming in the public-relations spotlight.

Judging hats the size of apartment buildings and pouring an ocean’s worth of Del Margaritas hardly matter when you’re simply trying to open the gates.

The track will open its iconic summer meet July 10, eight days earlier than planned. Horses will race three days each week, instead of five. Only essential workers will be allowed, which — coupled with no fans — drops daily staff from more than 1,100 to just fewer than 300.

A meet on mute, but a meet nonetheless.

Del Mar has managed to navigate it all with the kind of footwork that would make Mikhail Baryshnikov’s jaw slack. Toss conventional operations into a blender, then slather sanitizer over everything. Wash, rinse and hope you never have to repeat.

To everyone at Del Mar, running is the thing, regardless of anyone rolling up a racing program or spilling an overpriced beer along the rail. About 90% of Del Mar’s handle, the money bet on races, is wagered away from the track.

“Horse racing is in pretty good position to operate in these conditions,” said Josh Rubinstein, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s president. “That’s critical, because you can’t take horses home and put them in the back yard. They still need care. That still costs money. That world has not stopped. The expenses of that have not stopped.

“Then you consider the housing and health care provided for a lot of workers. That doesn’t stop, either.”

Del Mar projects a $17 million gut punch to the books, in terms of lost revenue from tickets, concessions, merchandise and parking during the meet. It would not be a fatal blow, though, if horses keep climbing into the starting gate.

“Walking away from $17 million in revenue is challenging,” Rubinstein said. “There’s some savings with staffers not here, but it’s not $17 million. Racing is huge.”

These are glass half-full days, where the turf foxtrots with the surf. When life offers lemons, make whatever you can splash into the pandemic pitcher.

Since coronavirus concerns sidelined the San Diego County Fair, the racetrack was able to move up dates, spread them out and target more popular spots. They’ll plan to host 10 races on Fridays and Sundays, with 11 on Saturdays. The final day, as usual, will be Labor Day.

Days will shrink from 36 to 28, but the net loss in races will (hopefully) be just six — from 297 a year ago to 291. Based on Santa Anita’s restart, Rubinstein remained optimistic that field size will be robust with 1,700 or more horses at the facility.

In a unique business, unique challenges continually crest the horizon.

“It’s not like a restaurant, where you shut the doors and say we’ll open in better conditions,” Rubinstein said. “The horses need care no matter what.”

The track will test temperatures of everyone entering, require masks and add 54 handwashing and sanitizing stations. Jockeys will not be quarantined in an on-site colony, as Santa Anita has done (but not other tracks).

If conditions change and some fans eventually can attend, well, Del Mar’s ready for that too.

“We want to do everything for the safety of the patrons if they’re allowed in,” CEO Joe Harper said. “It really depends on the rules. But we have a half-a-million-square-foot grandstand, so we can do a lot of spacing there. We’re optimistic and hopeful that come July or August, enough restrictions are lifted where we could possibly do that.

“We have plans A, B and C. We’ve kind of been doing the what-ifs from the beginning.”

Dominoes keep tumbling, causing ripples from the bluegrass of Kentucky to the California coast.

When COVID-19 stiff-armed the Kentucky Derby from the first Saturday in May to September, it scrambled the sport’s collective eggs. The Belmont Stakes now steps to the front of the Triple Crown line. With more Derby warm-ups needed, Del Mar’s Shared Belief Stakes on Aug. 1 becomes an official prep race with the winner getting 50 valuable points.

Few things feel normal, just like nearly everything else these days. When racing starts, for example, jockeys and pony riders will be required to wear masks and gloves.

Rubinstein and Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s executive vice president for racing, visited Santa Anita on Friday to soak up racing unplugged. The takeaway? Silence.

“It was the middle of the race day and it was eerie, how quiet it was,” Rubinstein said.

Those types of step-backs benefited Del Mar. They’ve mined information from the four-legged trailblazers at Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, Golden Gate Fields and Churchill Downs. Belmont Park, meanwhile, will begin racing without fans June 3.

“We’ve had the luxury of time,” Rubinstein said. “We could be very thoughtful and have significant conversations with local officials and the health department. It’s all been very positive.”

Pass the lemons.

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Del Mar’s opening day

Del Mar will open its summer meet Friday, July 10, eight days earlier than initially scheduled. The normally colorful, rambunctious event will be held without fans and limited to essential personnel.

To capture small slices of the annual flavor, Del Mar plans to offer a virtual hat contest, track “takeout” that includes Del Margaritas and “Cardiff Crack” tri-tip from Seaside Market and betting tip sheets to go. There will be gift shop deals and special online wagering offers through FanDuel.

“We can’t recreate the feeling people get when they come to the track dressed to the nines, but we’re going to do the best we can,” Del Mar Thoroughbred Club President Josh Rubinstein said. “It’s a holiday in San Diego. We don’t want to let people down.”

Del Mar also is working with restaurants to create Del Mar viewing parties on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons during the meet with extra TVs dedicated to racing.

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Del Mar protocols

— Safety plans and protocols for Del Mar’s summer meet, scheduled to open July 10.

— Admittance to the facility will be strictly limited to essential personnel

— Daily on-site check-ins for all staff; includes temperature checks and medical surveys

— All personnel will be required to wear face coverings

— Some staff (e.g., starting gate crew) will be required to wear protective eyewear and gloves

— Some staff (e.g. jockeys) will receive COVID-19 testing

— In addition to face masks, jockeys and pony riders will be required to wear gloves

— Social distancing required

— No mass gatherings — currently, over 10 people — permitted

— No congregation of people will be permitted in the saddling area/paddock

— Saddling area and starting gate will be disinfected after each race

— Additional handwashing and sanitizer stations throughout the facility

— Enhanced janitorial services including daily disinfectant of all “common areas”

— On-site medical personnel

— Quarantine area procedures

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