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Written by: Marie Spada The Man Behind the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

The Expert: Joe Harper, President and CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

Joe Harper got his start at Santa Anita Park and left his position as Executive Vice President of the Oak Tree Racing Association for Del Mar. He has brought Del Mar through a series of unparalleled changes and successes since assuming management of the Thoroughbred Club in 1978. During his tenure as CEO, he has established Del Mar as America’s top racetrack for daily average handle and attendance. His attention to detail and consideration of the club’s rich history has allowed him to preserve its simultaneously elegant and casual ambiance. In 1993, he completely overhauled the grandstand at a whopping $80 million. He oversaw the replacement of the 53-year-old turf course in 2014, and in 2015, spearheaded the removal of the aging Polytrack, that was replaced by a new dirt course which debuted over this past summer.

Q: Cecil B. DeMille was your grandfather, so you have hosted parties at your home with world-renowned celebrities. What’s your favorite memory of Bing Crosby specifically?
Joe Harper: Well, I only met Bing once, and he came out to the track in 1977, the first year I was here in a management position. We chatted for a while, and he was amazed at the additions and improvements we had made since 1937. He was very complimentary and enjoyed his visit. That was the same year he passed away—just a few months later, actually. I was glad he made it back. His widow, Kathryn, has been here. She came down close to 10 years ago; she had never been to the track, so I got to spend some time with her. She brought tons of great old photographs of celebrities that were all taken here at Del Mar. That was fun for us all to see.

Q: There isn’t a bigger connection to Hollywood than that! What was it about the tracks that piqued your interest and swayed you from following in the footsteps of your famed grandfather?
JH: I think Del Mar and I, to some degree, got our roots in Hollywood. At the time, I was in management at the Santa Anita racetrack, so when they asked me to come down here, it was a very natural fit. I think that Del Mar allows the ability to skew its marketing to Old Hollywood and our roots. That in itself made it much more intriguing to me; the ability to talk about the venue and market rather than just racing.

Q: What has been the biggest change during your tenure with the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, and with horse racing overall?
JH: I think the biggest change was when we went to off-track wagering. It was introduced in New York. We looked at that and thought, “Well, we know how not to do it, ” because New York had a different reason for putting in off-track wagering. They were bailing out the city of New York financially and not really helping out the tracks, so we learned a little lesson there. It took us about four or five years until everyone could say, “This is the way it should be done.” It was a tremendous boost for us. At the time, we had fans coming from the Los Angeles and Orange County areas. All of a sudden those fans had a chance to drive over to Santa Anita or Hollywood Park to place their bets. We knew our on-track business was going to be impacted. What I never realized was that it would be such a positive growth in our mutuel handle. I remember saying, “We’ve never made so much money, but we’re a little lonely counting it down here.” That gave us a great opportunity and a challenge to come up with marketing ideas to build our on-track experience. That’s what we’ve been doing, and for now we seem to have the best of both worlds. We went from averaging $3 million a day to $13 million a day, so you can see where the growth has been. We are really happy here, and lucky to have such a great group of people.

Q: Opening Day at Del Mar attracts quite an audience; what have you implemented to keep people coming back while attracting younger attendees?
JH: If you go back 20 years ago when we gave a very hard look at what our marketing direction was, it’s kind of funny. We did some marketing research, put out a questionnaire and phone interviews about whether or not people come to Del Mar, and what they like about it. I was more interested in the “no” answer—why they didn’t come to Del Mar. The frustrating part was that they really didn’t have an answer. The overall comment was, “I don’t know.” They had heard very good things about it, and we had a very high recognition factor, but they never got around to it. I think we figured out that what they were saying was really, “Well, I don’t like horse racing, ” and we decided that we should take a different direction with our marketing. We decided to market our venue rather than our product, and that’s what we’ve been doing for over 20 years now. You don’t see many horses in our commercials—you see a lot of pretty people. You see parties and folks having a great time. We brought in concerts on Friday nights and some Saturdays, we have Family Fun Day, the Opening Day party and the Crazy Hat Contest—even the Cougar Contest for a while! We’ve done some funky things over the years that have made Del Mar an all around fun place to be for everyone and, by the way, you’ll have fun betting on the horses, too.

Q: What has been the most exciting race you’ve witnessed?
JH: Well I think at Del Mar, the most memorable race was when we first had a million-dollar race. Also, when we had enough handle and betting to have a million-dollar purse on a race. John Mabee, who was the track chairman of the board at the time, managed to win the first Pacific Classic race with a horse called Best Pal. That horse went on to run second in the Kentucky Derby and was a very successful horse.

Q: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment at Del Mar?
JH: Keeping my job all these years, I guess! I think that Del Mar has accomplished a lot and has been probably more successful than any track in the country, especially when you consider the growth of where we were and where we’ve come with our average handle and attendance. I think the accomplishments go with having such a great crew here. Over the years, we’ve managed to put together top-notch people.

Q: What is your advice for someone attending Bing Crosby Season Opening Day for the very first time?
JH: Come early! I think that there are so many things going on during Opening Day, and there’s such a great party atmosphere. I’d say enjoy it for what it is. It’s great racing, great people watching, goofy things going on—I love it.