"This story isn’t about me!” Richard Eckfield, who’s been on a three-year crusade to get a train stop built at the Del Mar Racetrack, is adamant. “It’s a much larger issue.” But Eckfield’s relentless dedication, the single-mindedness with which he’s pursued his quarry, tell a different tale — the tale of a retiree and his wife who’ve spent many of their waking hours, not to mention $15,000, to advance a project that they feel is vital for the health of Thoroughbred horse racing.
Richard Eckfield, at 72, is a vigorous man with a pile of snow-white hair, matching goatee, and piercing blue eyes. His voice booms with enthusiasm — and, at times, frustration — when he talks about the project, which has been part of the fairground’s master plan since 1985. I meet him, along with his wife, Helen Nielsen-Eckfield, at Champs Pub and Deli on Miramar Road; the proprietor, it turns out, is not only a friend of Eckfield’s but a racehorse owner as well — a fact that typifies the couple’s connections to the well-heeled horsey set and to Del Mar racing in particular. (Ironically, Eckfield is neither a horse owner nor handicapper but works as an usher at the Del Mar meet.)
In 2006, while dining with Dr. Steven Buttgenbach, the then–Del Mar track veterinarian, Carlsbad denizens Richard and Helen Eckfield seized upon the notion that if a train stop were ever to grace the Del Mar Fairgrounds, as it had decades before, it would be by dint of their will. Since then, the Eckfields’ efforts have been incessant, spelled out exhaustively in their column “Savvy Seniors, Frugal and Active,” which appears in small North County weeklies such as the Carmel Valley News, Del Mar Village Voice, and Rancho Santa Fe Review. Throw in meetings and photo ops with local politicians, testimony before various governmental boards, as well as constant emails, letters, and phone calls, and the picture of a crusader emerges.
In 2008, the Eckfields persuaded two San Diego–area consulting firms to work on an anonymous, pro bono basis to analyze the project. Their studies confirm what generally all the players agree upon — namely, that an increase in rail traffic generated by a new seasonal, permanent platform would require replacement of the trestle across the San Dieguito River. Built in 1916, the structure, just south of the proposed platform site, is, according to Eckfield, “probably held up by barnacles.” Double tracking from the platform north to the Solana Beach station would also be necessary; without parallel north and south tracks, the already interminable delays — caused when a train must pull off onto a siding to allow an oncoming train to pass — would be exacerbated. Additionally, due to topographic, environmental, and right-of-way complications, it is likely that a tunnel would need to be built — perhaps under Del Mar.
With evangelical zeal, Richard Eckfield (Helen defers to his vocal lead) trumpets his contention that the project would not only improve access to the races and the fair but help San Diegans conserve oil and reduce air pollution by taking cars off the road. He also cites a safety angle. “I see people after the races who are extremely drunk.
And when they have the reggae concerts, they smoke so much pot that they can’t stand up straight.” Taking this “something for everyone” stance, the Eckfields maintain that the proposed train stop has “no downside.” If so, why hasn’t it come to fruition? When pressed, they say that the reasons are a bit murky but that the powers that be are “preoccupied” with other things, including a much-criticized proposal to construct a condo-hotel, health club/spa, and other enterprises on the fairgrounds. This discussion inevitably leads one to the question: Who runs the fairgrounds? The answer is the 22nd District Agricultural Association, or Fair Board, as it’s colloquially known — a low-profile (some would say secretive) but high-powered state agency led by a nine-member board of directors appointed by the governor. In San Diego, the public face of the Fair Board is its executive director, Tim Fennell, better known to most San Diegans for his rejected raise request than for his role in carrying out the wishes of the directors.
When I mention Richard Eckfield to Tim Fennell, he bursts out, “I don’t even want to be in the same article with him.” Although Fennell says that a fairgrounds train stop is indeed a worthwhile project that he and the Fair Board support, he fairly bristles when I bring up Eckfield’s ongoing accusations. Fennell calls Eckfield a “self-promoter” who “lacks credibility” and “who claims to be many things.” I pose the central question to Fennell: Why the delays? He responds by saying that it all boils down to a lack of funding; he pegs the total project cost at about $80 million. When I quote Eckfield’s estimate of a “few million dollars,” Fennell responds dismissively, saying that “Eckfield doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
As it turns out, the Eckfields have dogged Fennell and the Fair Board members by attending the monthly meetings held at the fairgrounds. They characterize the meetings as self-congratulatory sessions in which well-connected, wealthy appointees do next to nothing for the public good. “It’s like the court of Versailles — you know, ‘Let them eat cake.’ ” Eckfield suggests that the Fair Board members, such as Russ Penniman of Rancho Santa Fe, are so inextricably tied to lucrative real estate development that, no matter what Fennell says, the board’s priorities are, at the least, incongruent with the best uses of this high-priced piece of state-owned land. Fennell vigorously denies allegations of incompetence or favoritism and implies that Eckfield’s passion is part of a personal vendetta against him. (Russ Penniman did not return phone calls for this story.)
Despite his discomfiture with the board’s governance, Richard Eckfield notes with enthusiasm that even Tim Fennell — in a phone conversation recorded on Eckfield’s answering machine in 2007 — has elucidated “even more reasons” why the train stop is a good idea. For his part, Fennell has suggested that year-round attendance at the fairgrounds — whether for an orchid exhibition, gun show, or any other nonracing event — would be enhanced by giving single-car families, not to mention the car-bereft, the opportunity to get to the venue. Eckfield concedes, however, that even without the potential benefit for fair attendees, he’d still be in favor of the project. And, he admits, no studies have been undertaken to quantify the hoped-for upswing in attendance and resultant revenues.