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Joe Harper

Joe Harper, director, president, general manager and CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, goes back four decades with the racetrack, starting in the 1960s, when he was a young photographer. After rising to the top management post, he’s led the Del Mar track to unparalleled growth at a time when tracks in other cities have begun to falter. He’s a past president of the Thoroughbred Racing Association and a board member of the California Racing Associations. A native Californian, he’s the grandson of famed film producer and director Cecil B. DeMille. Harper and his wife, Barbara, parents of four daughters and grandparents to nine, live on the beach in Del Mar, a five-minute walk to the turf.

TOM BLAIR: So you’re the director, you’re the president, the CEO and you’re general manager of the racetrack. You collect titles?

JOE HARPER: No, actually, every time I wanted a raise, they just gave me another title.

TB: The Del Mar racetrack is coming up on its 70th birthday. Your tenure as manager covers almost 30 of those years . . .

JH: Well, but as a photographer, I came down in 1966. I came on full time in 1977.

TB: So it goes back 40 years. What’s the most significant change you’ve seen in the world of Thoroughbred racing over that time?

JH: At Del Mar, it was the redoing of the grandstand [an $80 million reconstruction project in 1993]. But industry-wide, it would have to be the legalization of offtrack wagering. That changed the whole industry. I remember saying at the time that we’d never before made so much money and been so lonely counting it.

TB: It certainly changed the numbers of race fans in the grandstand. But there have been lots of changes. Having grown up in San Diego, one thing I remember most vividly is the attraction the racetrack used to have for Hollywood celebrities. Big names in the old days — Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Jimmy Durante, Lana Turner, Harry James and Betty Grable. And no new generation seems to have replaced them. You have your own family tradition in show business. What’s happened to Del Mar’s lure for Hollywood?

JH:Well, I don’t think in quantity it holds the lure it once did. We get celebrities from time to time, because Del Mar is kind of the hot place, but the younger generation is tough. We had Tobey Maguire down here when he was making Seabiscuit; he wanted to feel the experience of the track. And we’ve had Jessica Simpson and others, but they’re not regulars. It’s just a different generation of entertainer. There’s more to do with discretionary income than there used to be in the ’30s and ’40s.

TB: It was also a matter of style in the old days.

JH: Sure it was. I mean, what ever happened to Cary Grant?

TB: Speaking of Hollywood, with Cecil B. DeMille for a grandfather, you might have gone for a career in acting—maybe even directing. Did that ever occur to you?

JH: It did when I got out of college. I got a job at MGM working in the mailroom. Of course, in those days, in the ’60s, I walked into the mailroom and everybody said, “Okay, whose kid are you?”

TB: Did your grandfather ever give you a bit part in a DeMille epic?

JH: Yeah, I had a couple of parts—one in The Greatest Show on Earth. It won the Academy Award for best picture of 1952 . . .

TB: You didn’t win an Oscar?

JH: No, but I was in the movie’s big train wreck. I was a circus performer trying to get out of the way of the loose leopards and other wild animals. And somewhere along the line, I became a cinema photographer— and worked for a guy who did a weekly TV show on racing. I used to shoot the film interviews and vignettes that went into the live show on CBS.

TB: And then you turned to the show business of horse racing, where Del Mar pretty much sets the standard. Recent Del Mar seasons have been successful as far as the handle is concerned—the total of on- and offtrack betting. But in terms of attendance, it’s been flattening, or increasing only slightly.

JH: It was about expanding offtrack markets. Initially, with [the legalization of ] offtrack betting, we saw about a 25 percent drop in our track attendance. And that was primarily due to the Los Angeles market. People could now go to a closer track and bet on Del Mar. It was especially tough in our case, where we had been getting something like half our patrons coming from the L.A. area.

TB: Still, you’re doing better than most tracks—like Santa Anita, or Hollywood Park.

JH: Oh, they’ve been hurting much worse. I think Hollywood Park is just about through.

TB: So does that have something to do with horse racing’s inability to attract the young audience?

JH: I’m a little tougher on the tracks. I think it’s an inability to reinvent themselves. What we’ve done here is, we kind of stopped marketing our product and started marketing our venue. We made it appealing to people as a party place. The Friday-night concerts, for example. That had an interesting effect. Sure, we got a lot of kids coming free to the concerts. But then more and more started coming a little earlier, and started betting. The concerts created an atmosphere that brought more people like the opening-day Turf Club crowd. And we’re seeing more of them coming back. Our track attendance has actually increased in the past few years.

TB: Well, if you’re successful, and the rest of the tracks in the country aren’t, you can’t stay in this business as a solo act.

JH: That’s the trouble. The frustrating thing is you want to see the other tracks do a little something to reinvent themselves. We’re finally seeing a little—Santa Anita had a decent meet this year; they were up. And some of the tracks back east have been showing little gains. You can’t remarket yourself and expect an immediate change. Certainly it wasn’t immediate for us. It’s been about 10 years of pushing away from “see the pretty horses run” to “see the pretty girls.” If racing is kind of a background for a cool place to be, they’ll show up.

TB: Last year, there was a lot of talk about boosting attendance by offering Vegas-style slot machines at California tracks. Has that gained any momentum?

JH: I think it’s very difficult in this state to get slots at racetracks. A lot of people have to come into the equation. You have to get the state government to go along with it. And we have to be realistic; we have to get tribal gaming to go along with it. They’re very successful, and they have a lot of resources to affect legislation. But I’ve always said these people aren’t the enemy. And we’ve shown that at Del Mar. A couple of our major sponsors have been Barona and Viejas, and we’ve had very good relationships. If you can foster relationships, you have a lot better chance of suggesting some way—whether we get slot machines or not—to get some kind of revenue because of the impact of tribal gaming. The other tracks tried to push something through a couple of years ago, and it didn’t work at all. You have to start building on trust, not muscle, because Indian gaming has a lot more muscle than the racetracks.

TB: Well, if good marketing is about getting attention, Thoroughbred racing has been getting lots of publicity in the past couple of years. Not all good. Trainers being sanctioned for “milkshaking”—sodium bicarb-loading of horses for enhanced performance. Cases where owners were bribing other owners to throw races. Jockeys protesting low weight limits that can threaten their health, and lobbying for more health insurance. Talk of the jockeys joining the Teamster Union. Do all these controversies concern you?

JH: It takes your time more than your concern. Most of these things can be worked out. The jockeys, the weight issue—they have a problem. And the weight scale probably should be changed. We have to do it on a national level. But the jockeys’ guild was having a lot of internal problems, and now they’ve solved those. The more important thing is to get these guys the medical insurance they need in case they’re injured. There are some riders who are now paraplegics or quadriplegics; it’s a very dangerous game. And this industry, not just the jockeys themselves, has to step forward and make sure they’ve got coverage. As for the Teamsters, we’ve been negotiating Teamster contracts for years and frankly have a pretty good relationship with them. But I doubt the jockeys will go in that direction—unless they can tailor some program specifically for them. But that’s usually not the case.

TB: Casual observation tells me attendance has been slack in recent years in the upscale Turf Club—with the track’s most-exclusive seats, fine dining and chi-chi atmosphere. It has to be an important profit center. Is the Turf Club an anachronism?

JH: It’s doing very well, actually. We still have a wait list. We limit access for a reason. Primarily, it’s just seating space. Most days those tables will be gone. Sure, some of the weekdays will be slow, but that’s always been the case. Plus, we’ve added other areas, like the luxury suites. You’ve got a lot of people up in those suites who might have originally taken up a couple of tables each in the Turf Club.

TB: Well, there’s no doubt the Turf Club is a hot ticket on opening day. Maybe you can help me clear up a mystery that’s been intriguing San Diegans for a long time. Where do all those larger-than-life ladies come from who decorate the club on opening day? And where do they disappear to?

JH: I asked somebody what they thought, once: “Where do they go?” And they said, “Back to the gym.” You know, there’s a lot of beautiful people in this beautiful city. And opening day? Well, every year I go to the Oscars and it’s the same feeling. Like, where did all these beautiful people come from? Did I see you at the supermarket? I don’t think so.

TB: What’s the most thrilling horse race you’ve ever witnessed?

JH: Oh, boy. A few years ago, we had a match race between Patrick Valenzuela and Julie Krone. And the horses were absolutely, totally evenly matched. What I saw was two riders getting the most out of a horse I’ve ever seen in my life. And there’s nobody more competitive than those two riders. You know, people said, “Here’s a woman versus a man.” There was no woman versus man. There were just two incredibly talented riders coming down the stretch—carrying these horses with them. That kind of thing, at Del Mar, on that day, I really got a kick out of watching that.

TB: Which one did you have your $2 on?

JH: [Sighs and laughs.] I didn’t bet. I really didn’t. I couldn’t figure it out. And then, at the 16th pole, I thought Julie was going to win the race. But Patrick just . . . he was able to come back more than she was able to sustain. But the talent of those two riders got it right down to the wire—just a few inches apart—a beautiful thing.