Mooney, Delaware seek to improvise, adapt
by Doug McCoy
”Improvise, adapt, overcome.”
It’s the unofficial mantra of the U.S. Marine Corp, and as Delaware Park kicks off its 80th season of racing Saturday, the saying accurately describes the strategy Delaware director of racing John Mooney and his staff are employing to maintain a presence among the race tracks of the Mid-Atlantic.
It’s no secret the historic track has faced stiff competition from other racing and gaming operations in the area in recent years. And it’s also no secret that since 2010, when gaming began in Maryland, Maryland racing has been flourishing, attracting more stables, offering bigger purses, and making it even more difficult for other tracks in the area to operate.
Delaware Park may not be operating from a position of strength in the battle for horses and fans, but the track can seek innovative ways to make it a more attractive venue to stable and race.
One of those changes this year involves the timing of Delaware Park’s opening and closing.
This season the meeting will kick off it’s 81-day meeting two weeks later than last season and will also start with a four-day-a-week schedule.
“We have a number of stables that race down south during the winter and in recent years some of the tracks where they’ve been racing have run longer into the spring,” Mooney explained. “Some horsemen were shipping up later, and whenever a stable ships their stock isn’t ready to race right off the bat, they take a bit of time to adjust. We decided with a later opening those outfits would have the time to ship in and get settled, start training, and have more of their horses ready to run.”
Mooney also pointed out other factors that made the dates shift make sense.
“Racing three days a week wasn’t economically feasible from a cost standpoint, plus with the later opening, we are able to start running on the turf from day one,” he added. “Turf racing is very popular with both the fans and horsemen, those races are easier to fill, and being able to card races on the turf right off the bat should help us build stronger programs early in the meeting.”
And along with the late opening comes a later closing date, October 22, another date set with long-range planning in mind. “In the fall there’s a gap where a number of tracks who race in the summer complete their meetings yet several tracks in the south aren’t scheduled to opening for several weeks,” he said. “By staying open an extra three weeks, a number of stables will be able to stay here and race their horses during that period. It helps the horsemen and it helps us.”
As they have in past winters Mooney and racing secretary Jed Doro have been putting a lot of miles in on the backstretches of southern tracks, meeting with horsemen and explaining the advantages of racing at Delaware Park. The dismal political outlook for racing in Illinois has prompted a number of horsemen who used to race at Arlington Park to change their plans, and two such horsemen courted by Delaware staff this winter decided to move their outfits East and race at the Stanton oval this meeting.
Michael Stidham has been a perennial power in the Midwest for a number of years while racing primarily in Louisiana, Kentucky and Illinois. This year he has stalls both at Delaware Park and at Fair Hill Training Center. Stidham finished fourth in the trainer standings at the Fair Grounds this winter.
Dale Bennett, a high-percentage horseman who completed the recent Tampa Bay Downs meeting with a 25 percent winning rate, will also be racing here for the first time. Bennett is the son of Gerald Bennett, leading trainer for the Tampa meeting, and has a reputation as a first-rate horseman.
Other newcomers include young Darian Rodriguez, a hard working up-and-comer who does about everything around his barn. Rodriguez won one-third of his races at Tampa this winter and looks to have a bright future. Michael Catalano will be back after an absence of several years and has a large string, while Mike Dini, who has several promising 3-year-olds in his outfit, also will be racing here for the first time.
Jamie Ness will be back to defend his training title, along with mainstays Larry Jones and Keith Nations.
The rider’s colony is headed by three-time leading rider Carol Cedeno, looking to join pretty fancy company as a four-time meet leader here. Mitchel Murrill, who has won 276 races over the past 2 years, tops the newcomers, along with Edwin Gonzalez, who finished second in the rider’s standings at Tampa Bay Downs this winter. A number of apprentices will be trying to get their careers rolling by riding here and at the other tracks on the I-95 corridor, most notably Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco, younger brother of Eclipse Award winner Victor, has won 22 races already in a career that began in early March.
Delaware Park will race Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays through October 22.