The changes for the 2009 season at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club are coming fast and furious.

Track officials will go before the California Horse Racing Board next month to drop Monday racing, cutting its 43-day meet to 37 days. And on Sunday, officials said they plan to revamp their stakes schedule, including moving its two biggest races —- the $1 million Pacific Classic and Grade I Del Mar Futurity.

Del Mar intends to create a racing festival on the final weekend of its meet, Sept. 4-7, with the Pacific Classic moved back one week from its traditional spot on the racing calendar to Sept. 6 and the Futurity moved up two days from its closing-day position to Labor Day, Sept. 7.

“We felt like we could make it a helluva weekend,” track president Joe Harper said. “It will make that weekend more special for us.”

Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s vice president of racing, said the idea came from brainstorming sessions between the track’s marketing and racing offices.

“We want to go out with a bang,” Robbins said. “We’re going to have four Grade Is at the end of the meet and see how it works out.”

Del Mar will begin Labor Day weekend on Sept. 4 with the Rancho Bernardo Handicap, a sprint for older fillies and mares. That will be followed on Sept. 5 by the Grade I Debutante for 2-year-old fillies.

On Sept. 6, in addition to the Pacific Classic, Del Mar will run the Torrey Pines Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, the Grade II Pat O’Brien Handicap for sprinters at 7 furlongs and the Grade II Del Mar Derby for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles on the turf course.

With the 2-year-old Futurity championship moved to Sept. 7, the closing-day feature will now be the Grade II Palomar Handicap for fillies and mares on the turf.

Additionally, Del Mar will move the San Diego Handicap —- a prep for the Pacific Classic —- from the first weekend of the meet to the second weekend and the Best Pal Stakes for 2-year-olds up one week to have more time between that race and the Futurity.

Del Mar won’t officially announce its stakes schedule until the CHRB accepts —- or rejects —- its request to drop racing days at an April 23 meeting.

Robbins said he has received varying reactions from horsemen over the proposed changes to the racing schedule.

“It just depends on the philosophy of the individual,” he said. “The majority (of the trainers) want more spacing (between races).”

Said Harper: “Every time we change anything, we’re worried about the horsemen. We think this is a good deal.”

Harper said he was concerned about a backlash from fans who have made Pacific Classic weekend a traditional getaway in August.

“That’s always a concern,” he said. “We think we have buttressed the whole (Labor Day weekend), and the Pacific Classic will still be a good day.”

Unlike in previous years, Del Mar doesn’t have a television package for this year’s Pacific Classic on ESPN, but Harper said he’s not worried about it and that the move of the premier race was never discussed in relation to television coverage.

“Television is not dictacting where we put these things,” said Harper, who last year allowed the Pacific Classic to be run at 6:45 p.m. so it could be seen in prime time on the East Coast. “You run into problems when you allow television to tell you when to run races. We’ll just do our own thing on television or not.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Nahill at or (760) 740-3550.

Bill Strauss arrived for his staff meeting Monday morning to find a mint julep stationed at his seat.

Independently, Strauss’ brother Jeff received a gift basket containing the same cocktail’s key components: bourbon and mint.

This was neither a coincidence nor a conspiracy, but sure symptoms that Kentucky Derby Fever has again infiltrated San Diego County.

The Strauss brothers own 20 percent of The Pamplemousse, a 3-year-old colt on an accelerating collision course with America’s most renowned horse race. Because the brothers are relative rookies as thoroughbred investors, and because The Pamplemousse was one of 34,712 registered foals in the United States in 2006, the odds against this happening conjures a photo finish between Ridiculous and Preposterous.

Yet here it is and here they are – a pair of transplanted New Yorkers on a jubilant joy ride, living the outlandish dream of horsemen worldwide.

“Dreaming is the best part of it,” Jeff Strauss said. “People say “ ‘Don’t jinx your horse.’ But what the hell, most of the fun is talking about it, what may become of this.”

What Jeff Strauss once rationalized as a marketing vehicle for his Pamplemousse Grille has become a bona-fide Derby favorite. Fresh from his third straight victory, an emphatic six-length triumph in Saturday’s Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, The Pamplemousse improved from 20-1 to 10-1 in the Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch.

Only two horses are assigned shorter odds: Old Fashioned at 5-1 and Pioneerof the Nile at 8-1. Selected by bloodstock agent Alex Solis Jr. and ridden by jockey Alex Solis Sr., The Pamplemousse is scheduled to run his last Derby prep on April 4 in the Santa Anita Derby.

Barring injury, it will then be mint juleps on the menu.

“The other ones when they win, it’s the adrenaline for that race, and you’re just excited for that race,” Bill Strauss said. “With this one, it’s the hope and the potential and the possibility that you’re watching. It’s a completely different feeling. . . .

“Of all the horses, I’ve seen, he has as good a shot at any. The good news is he’s getting better every race and he’s happy, he’s feeling great. He wants to run. I would not trade him for any other horse running right now.”

When asked about his horse’s Derby prospects, Jeff Strauss admitted that he was already “thinking about all three of them,” meaning Triple Crown legs. If that statement seems slightly audacious, why bother living the dream if you’re not going to live it large?

Clearly, the Strauss brothers do not recoil from risk. Bill Strauss, 50, says he had “zero” knowledge of the flower business when he started, but trusted his direct marketing expertise to build a powerful Internet brand. Jeff Strauss, 47, opened a high-end French restaurant across the street from the Del Mar backstretch, fully aware that the track’s annual meet spans just seven weeks.

Both brothers are gamblers. Neither is in need of a bailout.

“He’s Mister Midas,” Bill Strauss said of his sibling, the star chef. “Everything he touches turns to gold. If you ever want to do something and you’re not sure it will be successful, get him as your partner and it’s a home run.”

The brothers were first drawn to the track by the lure of legalized gambling, and made their first trek to the winner’s circle 30 years ago, as they remember, in Delaware. But though they have hosted an annual benefit for disabled jockeys, they were basically racetrack dabblers until 2007, when they took a minority stake in four horses during the Keeneland Fall Sale. They added four more horses to their shared stable the following spring in Florida, including the gray colt that would become The Pamplemousse.

Pamplemousse is French for “grapefruit,” a translation that was initially lost on Jeff Strauss during an apprenticeship at Le Moulin de Mougins in the south of France. The word ultimately lodged in Strauss’lexicon through the sustained screaming of chef Serge Chollet.

Strauss’ apprenticeship was unpaid, but his piece of The Pamplemousse has proved to be enormously profitable. Purchased for a total price of $150,000, The Pamplemousse has already earned $209,280 in five career starts. The Strauss brothers’ original $30,000 investment might soon be worth millions should some Sheikh decide to try to buy the Derby.

“There are always offers coming in,” Bill Strauss said. “But this is the dream. This is what you do it for. As Jeff says, after this horse retires, we might never own another horse because the odds of us being in March with another Derby contender are slim to none.”

Jeff Strauss also said a mint julep might be improved by adding grapefruit. Or, if you prefer, “Pamplemousse.”



Tim Sullivan: (619) 293-1033;

Tim Sullivan: (619) 293-1033; (Contact)

The years of the six-day racing week at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club apparently will come to an end.

Del Mar is in the process of asking authorities to go to a five-day race week and drop Monday racing, said track president Joe Harper on Friday.

“We’re worried we won’t be able to fill a race card one day,” said a source, who asked for anonymity.

The track, which will enter its third season with the synthetic Polytrack in 2009, saw its average starters per race drop from 8.63 in 2007 to 8.49 last year.

Del Mar has raced six days a week —- Wednesday through Monday —- since 1946, but a sluggish economy and smaller horse population have officials worried they will not be able to fill a six-day program.

“We’re still crunching the numbers to tell if we’re right, but I think we are,” said Harper, whose track’s handle dropped 7 percent in 2008. “If you are going to change something, the patron had better get a better deal, and we think the patron will get a better product. We also think the bottom line will do better.”

Del Mar, which opens July 22, will ask to drop six racing days, all Mondays. Del Mar is expected to race on Labor Day, Sept. 7. Its current 43-day meet is due to end Sept. 9.

Del Mar must get approval for this plan from its own board of directors, the Del Mar fair board, the state racetrack leasing commission and the California Horse Racing Board. Del Mar will meet with the fair board on March 10 and is expected to formally ask for the change at an April meeting of the CHRB.

In hopes of not losing too much revenue —- Del Mar averaged $8 million in handle on a corresponding six Mondays in 2008 —- by the dropped eight-race card per week, the track will ask to add one race on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. That would mean a net loss of five races per week or about 35 races for the entire meet.

Del Mar would also change its popular 4 p.m. post time on Fridays to 3:30 for the first four weeks of the meet and 3 p.m. for the final three weeks.

“We’re going to have more races on better days,” Harper said. “I think it’s a pretty good deal.”

Harper said Del Mar has been working with the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) during the process in order to have all parties on board.

“We still have some work to do,” Harper said. “I was up at Santa Anita on Thursday and didn’t get any negative feedback.

“We’re a pretty conservative group. We run a lean ship. We haven’t absolutely said we’re going to do this, but the economy isn’t a pretty picture.

“I expect questions (along the way), but we don’t make these kind of decisions or recommendations lightly.”

Peter Miller, who lives in Carlsbad and trains out of the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center in Bonsall, said he was in favor of the change.

“I think it’s a good idea and a good call,” said Miller, who finished tied for 11th in training standings last year with seven winners. “The horse population, economy and oversaturation of racing are all good reasons to give the horses and people a break. It’s never a vacation for the trainers and the help to come down to Del Mar and race six days a week. I’ve been hoping they would do this for years. I had hoped they would add weeks to the meet and not lose days, though.”

Harper said by state law Del Mar can only race seven weeks a year, so adding additional weeks would have to come through the legislature.

Oceanside’s Jeffrey Bloom, vice president of West Coast operations for West Point Thoroughbreds, believes the change will be good for the industry.

“The number of races we’re losing isn’t significant,” Bloom said. “I think it will be better from a fan standpoint and horse standpoint. It will rejuvenate everyone. I think you will see more robust fields and more competitive races.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Nahill at or (760) 740-3550.

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