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by Jay Privman of

Opening-day trend of strong betting, fewer people continues- HORSE RACING, DEL MAR, Calif. – Handle was up significantly and attendance down slightly for Del Mar’s opening day on Wednesday, a trend that has developed here in recent years.

The opening-day crowd includes thousands of patrons desirous of being at one of the social events of the summer in this area, while many of the regulars – certainly not all, but many – take a pass on the day and send it in from home. There are still 35 days of live racing to go.

The overall handle was $16,131,880, a sharp increase of 14 percent from last year, and judging by the number of people fighting a losing battle to remain on their feet near day’s end, the revenue from liquor sales will be quite robust, too.

The ontrack crowd was 33,112, a dip of nearly 3 percent from last year’s 34,128 and the smallest opening-day crowd since the 31,494 in 2000.

Having an attendance in the 30,000s actually has worked out well from a customer-service experience for Del Mar, as crowds into the 40,000s – which Del Mar has attracted – just can’t be serviced adequately, something Del Mar and the Breeders’ Cup sought to alleviate by putting a cap on attendance for the Breeders’ Cup last fall. The great success of that two-day event further convinced Del Mar management that the 30,000s is the track’s attendance sweet spot – a large crowd but one that won’t overwhelm betting lines and concession stands.

Wednesday’s crowd was “perfect,” said Joe Harper, Del Mar’s chief executive officer, adding, “40,000 fans here is not good.”

“You have trouble getting a bet down,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable. We learned from the Breeders’ Cup the magic number for us is in the 30s.”

There were only a handful of tracks open Wednesday. Saratoga does not open until Friday, so there was no racing in New York, and there was no racing in Northern California, which made Del Mar “the only dog at the trough,” Harper said during his traditional opening-day post-race visit to the press box.

Trainer Doug O’Neill got off to a blazing start, with four victories, three in concert with jockey Mario Gutierrez and owner Paul Reddam. Jerry Hollendorfer won three races.

Del Mar played host to a number of celebrities Wednesday, including actor David Hasselhoff, who was the opening-day crooner for the track’s daily “Sing With Bing” promotion. Jim Harbaugh, the coach of the University of Michigan football team, and former National Football League and Canadian Football League quarterback great Warren Moon were among those in attendance.

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