Year-round racing circuits are an undeniably positive life-changer for anybody who makes a living in horse racing. Families can develop a real sense of community. Children are able to stay in the same schools. Lives that used to be spent as gypsies going from track to track become normalized.
The downside is that there is no opening day, no sense of excitement as a new racing season begins. And that makes Delaware Park unique in the region, where the racing at the surrounding tracks in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia basically never ends.
The beautiful track in Stanton, Del., with its picnic grove, old-school paddock, and grandstand from a bygone era, will open its 81st season Wednesday with a 1:15 p.m. post. It will race every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Monday through Oct. 20, with the exception of the last week, when it will be just Wednesday and Saturday.
Jamie Ness and Scott Lake have trained more than 8,600 winners between them. Lake won every DelPark training title from 2002 to 2008. Ness has won five of the last six. Last year, they tied for the title. Both will be at Delaware with barns that will win early and often.
Jockey Jeremy Rose, who rode to national prominence while at DelPark, will return for the first time since 2013 and be reunited with agent “Kidd” Breeden, the pair a huge part of the wild Afleet Alex scene in 2005. Rose, 39, has won 2,609 races, including an incredible 312 in 2001, his first full year of riding. He won more than 200 races four other years.
Mario Pino, the leading rider at DelPark in 1979 and 1980, also is coming back for the meet after riding at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., in recent summers. Pino, 56, has won 6,860 races, 10th all time, and nearly won the 2007 Kentucky Derby when second with DelPark-based Hard Spun. A Wilmington native, he is one of just three active riders with more than 6,000 wins and has won more than 200 races in a year 11 times.
The track’s signature events will be run a week apart on July Saturdays: the $300,000 Delaware Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on July 7 and the $750,000 Delaware Handicap on July 14 for older fillies and mares. So many great horses have won the DelCap, but you could make a case that none was much more accomplished, talented and consistent than the great Songbird, who won the 2017 race for Wilmington’s Rick Porter.
Songbird has since been retired, and there are no fillies or mares in 2018 with anything like her record. Still, the DelCap, run at the American classic distance of a mile-and-a-quarter, remains a never-to-be-missed summer staple at a racetrack that conjures up another time but continues on proudly in a new age.