Tom Robbins said Del Mar’s terrific summer meet owes as much to the “stars being aligned” as to anything. But, in truth, strengthening the track’s long-time ‘Ship & Win’ program likely had the most to do with handle being up more than $100 million (22 per cent) compared to 2020.

Robbins, the San Diego-area track’s long-time executive vice-president of racing and industry relations, said an injection of over $1.5 million in the program (provided equally from the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and purses) helped attract more horses to the track which was key in driving handle to just shy of $570 million for the 31-date meet that ended Sept. 6. Robbins said it was a case of spending money to make money.

“Our CFO (chief financial officer) said this is one area where it’s better when we go over-budget because it means we’re getting more horses,” Robbins said. “Our field size is higher than it was the prior year.” Del Mar averaged 8.45 horses per race for this year’s summer meet, up from 8.36 in 2020.

The ‘Ship & Win’ program is now in its 11th year, but this summer $4,000 was awarded for every horse that started at Del Mar that had not started in California in the previous 12 months. This year, an exception was made for those horses that made no more than two starts at Santa Anita in May or June before Del Mar opened. This year 181 horses qualified for the program, up 74 per cent (from 104) in 2020.’

“We’re only as strong as our weakest link, so we felt that for Southern California to do well, Santa Anita has to do well and vice-versa. It worked out great. We’re going to continue the effort with Santa Anita,” Robbins said, adding it’s all to try to counter the “island effect” of California being relatively isolated from the rest of the thoroughbred racing world.

“(‘Ship & Win’) might be something that really only works for California,” he said. “Other tracks have tried similar approaches in terms of trying to attract outside horses to their venues, but it’s difficult on the east coast where trainers and owners are jumping around.”

In addition to the $4,000 bonus for horses coming in from out of state, Robbins said there was a percentage bump of up to 50% on the purses in an overnight race for those that qualified for the ‘Ship & Win’ program.

“That turns into significant money. We raised purses and our overnight purse levels were the highest they’ve been probably in about 10 years because of all the things I’ve mentioned before,” Robbins said. The track also benefited from Churchill Downs being shut down for stabling in July and August while it was installing a new turf course.

“So, we had some additional interest from horsemen back there,” Robbins said. “The other thing that I think helped us a bit is the fact that we’re hosting the Breeders’ Cup in the fall. So, it gave an opportunity for some outside trainers and owners to experience Del Mar during the summer that hadn’t been here when we last hosted the Breeders’ Cup in the fall of ’17. So, I think that was helpful. From a financial standpoint, we also were successful — we being the tracks in California and with our partnership with the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) — in striking a better deal with the ADW (advance deposit wagering) companies.

“Quite honestly, 2020 was a shock to a lot of people, but our business was better in 2020 than what we expected. So, we had additional purse money left over from an underpay in 2020 to carry over into 2021. Bottom line is, we had a lot of good things going for us. It doesn’t hurt that we’re also an eight-week meet situated about 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean.”

Though some 70 per cent of the horses that qualified for the ‘Ship & Win’ program are owned by Southern California residents, Del Mar officials encouraged them to take advantage of the program.

“There are some people that say, ‘Well, some of those horses would have been here anyway’ and I say, ‘Yeah, that’s probably true, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to reward somebody for going out and finding a horse, a local person finding a horse from elsewhere.’ If they were going to be here without any bonus, great. But, I think it’s significant to say, ‘Listen, we appreciate you adding to our population.’ It certainly helps our field size, which, in turn, fuels the wagering. It’s a pretty simple approach,” Robbins said.

“We’ll see what happens next year. We’re underpaid again, so we’ve got some additional purse money to move into 2022. Now, the fact that Churchill will be up and running and their turf course will be available and they will be stabling horses there all next summer will present maybe a little tougher challenge attracting some of the outside stables that we were successful in getting this year. But, we still are confident that what we present in our program is going to be pretty darn attractive for the next year.
“The more you spend on this the more you’re going to get back in returns. We’re happy. It puts more money into owners’ pockets and just makes the whole meet that much more attractive.

“It’s one of those rare times when everything plays out even better than what you were hoping for.”