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Del Mar returns with fans, smiles, large betting handle

As Trevor Denman welcomed the field onto the track for the first race of Del Mar’s 82nd summer meeting on Friday, the race caller’s distinctive voice climbed an octave.

“You can’t control it when the heart is beating like that,” said Denman later. “The voice goes up.”

Del Mar is back. So is the veteran Denman. And the fans … who cheered Denman as well as the arrival of the horses for the first race of the post-pandemic, 31-day meeting.

“Today is one of the most exciting days of my life,” said Denman, who returned for his 37th Del Mar season after missing — along with the fans — the 2020 season as Del Mar raced in the isolation created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a celebration,” Denman said of the atmosphere. “It’s feeling different even from other opening days. The crowd sounds different. It’s always a special day. But this is something beyond that. The weather. The buzz.”

The people.

Last year’s opening day attendance: 0. <FZ,1,0,12>Friday: 15,874. And while past opening days have drawn throngs of 40,000, Del Mar was extremely happy with everything about Friday’s 10-race program because there was a very important record set.

The wagering handle was a Del Mar record $21,339,643 — 29 percent higher than the previous first-day mark of $16,500,914 set in 2016. Last year’s opening day handle was $15,024,635.

And the average field for the 10-race card was 10 horses.

“We had a fantastic opening day,” said Del Mar President and COO Josh Rubinstein. “It was great to see to see all the smiling faces. A lot of fans told me how great this day was. And the quality of racing was good.

“What a terrific start.”

When asked what he liked most about opening day, Craig Stephens of Encinitas said: “Being here. It’s just fun being around people having a good time again.”

“Last year was eerie,” said Peter Miller, who was the leading trainer of the 2020 summer meeting. “It was creepy. It was bizarre. Put your own adjective. It was very strange to say the least. With nobody there, it was a shock to the system. It was Twilight Zoneish … a shock to the system.”

Friday provided a shock, too. It was electric.

“Way up here, I hear the joy, the excitement,” said Denman from his race caller’s booth on the roof.

The opening day feature — the Oceanside Stakes at a mile on the turf course — went to the Leonard Powell-trained Flashiest with Abel Cedillo aboard.

Flashiest finished a head in front of Crew Dragon with No Foolery Here a nose back and fourth-place Hockey Dad a neck back. The first 10 horses in the 12-horse field finished with a three-length spread.

Flashiest was five wide on the far turn and still sixth in the stretch.

“I had a plan for him, but he didn’t break so well, so I didn’t push it,” said Cedillo. “I just let him do his thing and saved ground around the first turn. But when we went wide in the second turn, I let him do his thing.”

“I wasn’t happy being so wide, but this horse has always been a bad actor at the gate and never sends speed,” said Powell. “I thought he was six or seven horses wide turning into the stretch. But he has a big long stride and was reaching out.”

Royal Ship leads field

The first graded stakes of the meeting will be today’s Grade II San Diego Handicap at 11/16 miles on the main track. Favored in the field of nine will be the Brazilian-bred Royal Ship, who made his American debut Aug. 23 at Del Mar with a third-place finish in the Grade II Del Mar Mile. He won the Grade II Californian Stakes in April at Santa Anita and finished second in the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita on May 31.

Royal Ship is guided by two Hall of Famers in trainer Richard Mandella and jockey Mike Smith, who will again be aboard the 5-year-old gelding.

Notable

Cedillo and Victor Espinoza both rode two winners Friday. Ten different trainers visited the winner’s circle.

Friday’s crowd included former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson and former UFC champ Chuck Liddell.

Center is a freelance writer.