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"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.

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seahorse Sept. 26, 2009 @ 6:58 p.m.

[Tim Fenel] responds by saying that it all boils down to a lack of funding"

Excuse me but the fairgrounds is the only government agency in California that is gushing revenue. There is are a reason the fairgrounds doesn't have their budget on line. People would freak out how much revenue they have and how much money they are spending on major capital improvements and Tim's beach resort complex. The money is there. Tim has to go.


eastcountylady Sept. 28, 2009 @ 10:03 a.m.

I have said this before in your story last March called "Del Mar Un-Fairgrounds," where the Reader pointed out that this fellow has been pitching the idea of re-establishing the train stop at the Fairgrounds for three years...but no one there is listening.

Bing Crosby started direct train service the second year of racing at Del Mar in 1938, and it ran for almost 30 years.

So I will try again to get you to listen to me. From East County have three choices when it comes to horse racing. I can go to Barona, Viejas,or drive to Del Mar. If I now take the Trolley to Old Town to catch the Coaster, I likely WOULD do that if I could get off at the track and walk in the few hundred feet into the grandstand. But I hate the traffic and the idea that I will go to Solana Beach just to catch a bus back the 2 miles to the track stinks, just like the busses do.

I do not know if this guy Harper ever gets out of the Turf Club to find out what the real fans want, which is service and a fun experience. No wonder this sport is dying. And please Turf Club, don't take the credit for that beautiful setting. God and the vacationers made Del Mar a financial success, not the insightfulness of the marketing staff. Building that train stop is truly a "no-brainer."

I thought Arnold was going to sell this place. Any real racing firm worth its salt would build that stop in a nano-second.


incognito Sept. 26, 2009 @ 8:04 a.m.

The Del Mar Fairgrounds is far and away the most grand venue in all of Southern California for such a broad range of attractions, I can't think of anyplace that hosts as many events. The diversity of attractions makes this a venue that benefits every person in the community. Not only is it grand, not only is it diverse, patronized by hundreds of thousands of people every year, it's the oldest grand venue of our coastal paradise AND of historical (and sentimental) significance. That the Del Mar Fairgrounds (or whatever you're calling it this week)should and must be made a major hub of mass transit is obvious--a no-brainer--there is no rational argument to the contrary. Get started on making a transit hub there, a crossroads of bus and train service from every outlying area in Southern Cal. Duh! I'm so exasperated, words fail. Wait, I forgot (as did the author)to note the cost of parking a car there is between $8.00 and $20.00, a sad fact that has kept many people away. How many families may find that if even they can manage admission to the event, the cost of parking is the deal breaker. (Thank you SDReader)


paperannex Sept. 24, 2009 @ 10:33 a.m.

Thanks for keeping this story going, but I wish that SANDAG and the track management would get the numbers right. It would only cost about $6 million. We don't want or need double track, nor a new bridge, just a platform for the people to stand on. The train would stop for less than 3 minutes to let people on and off the train. Using the $80 million price is a lie. Also, if Mr. Harper hasn't heard the constant complaints about the smell of the buses, HE HASN'T BEEN LISTENING. We all hate the buses. I personally sent Mr. Harper a petition from my friends in San Juan Capistrano 2 years ago. On opening day the wait for the smelly buses was OVER AN HOUR. Richard and Helen are our leaders, but there are thousands behind them.


bleutz Sept. 30, 2009 @ 10:14 a.m.

It completely boggles my mind that this is even up for discussion. Every major race track in the country has a train stop. In Chicago, Arlington Park has thousands of people getting off in the parking lot every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Heck, the Metra Train System even offers riders a $5.00 all you can ride weekend ticket, and kids ride for free. Arlington would be a ghost town without the train stopping steps from the grandstand.

Belmont Park in NY has the same thing. They got rid of the train for one meet last year and attendance took a huge drop. Sure enough the train started going there again.

My point is that a train stop at the fairgrounds would do nothing but benefit the track and the community. I cannot understand why this is even a question. The Fair Board should see this as a way to bring in additional income not continue to fight it. The community should see it as more people spending money in their town. I think the problem here is that it makes too much sense!

My hat is off to Richard and Helen....Keep up the good fight!


leutzy Oct. 1, 2009 @ 11:26 a.m.

As a Chicagoan I come to Del Mar each year for two weeks of racing there. But it’s not me that lives on Cedros in your story. It’s to disruptive with the busses and the drunks. I rent in Encinitas, with its cute downtown where I could walk to the Coaster stop, and would if I could get off at the track. Now I drive.

With regard to the “empty suits” – a racing term meaning the substance less folks that end up running some race tracks, we had one back here. Marge Everett bribed Governor Otto Kerner Jr. to give Arlington, which she managed, special race days and new freeway off ramps. She declared the bribe as a “ordinary business expense” on her taxes, and he went to jail. That’s Chicago! However, it appears a plan to give the current “suits” out there an uncontested new 20 year contract just got foiled. Your guys are learning. Of course they do have Duke Cunningham, your former congressman, to look up to as a role model.

At Arlington, families ride the train directly to the track where they picnic, and the kids see the horses up close and personal. The parents explain the math of the “odds” and kids learn about “probability.” That could be why our students do better on standardized math tests than yours. Perhaps some of the profits the “suits” are pocketing out there should be used to endow math classes, or equine management classes in the high schools. Think about it, this sport is struggling, and gambling will not be its salvation.



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