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Volume 23 No. 17
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Joe Harper, CEO, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

Harper builds Del Mar’s culture on service, entertainment
Photo: Courtesy of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club
Photo: Courtesy of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club
Photo: Courtesy of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

It’s almost as if someone from central casting sent Joe Harper in to run the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

 

He’s got the pedigree for it. Del Mar was founded by the late crooner Bing Crosby and frequented by movie stars in the 1930s and ’40s. Harper is the grandson of the late legendary movie producer Cecil B. DeMille. 

“Everybody in my family was in the motion picture business,” says Harper, who exudes movie star charm. He looks and sounds ageless and knows and loves horses.

Up until five years ago, he’d talk to trainers and jockeys on Del Mar’s backstretch in the mornings astride a horse. Now 75, he doesn’t ride out anymore, but he’s still omnipresent in the mornings, ready to listen to any horseman’s concern or complaint.

Harper is also in the process of handing over the reins of Del Mar, which he has held since 1990, to Josh Rubinstein. In January, Del Mar announced it had named Rubinstein, who has worked at the San Diego area track in an executive capacity since 1997, as president.

Del Mar’s history is intertwined with Southern California’s entertainment industry.
Photo: getty images
Del Mar’s history is intertwined with Southern California’s entertainment industry.
Photo: getty images
Del Mar’s history is intertwined with Southern California’s entertainment industry.
Photo: getty images

Harper continues to act as CEO, with a plan to eventually give that up to Rubinstein.

Asked if he was leaving some big shoes to fill, Harper, without missing a beat, quipped, “Josh has his own shoes and they work pretty well.”

If you ask Rubinstein how he and Harper are different, he says, “He’s a much better storyteller!”

Rubinstein, 48, says that he wants to continue what Harper has built at Del Mar. The track in northern San Diego County, along with Saratoga in upstate New York, has been a bright spot in an industry that has suffered through a nationwide, decades-long downturn in interest in horse racing. 

Del Mar continues to be the glamorous place “where the turf meets the surf,” as Crosby sang 80 years ago, as beautiful people still gather there in 2018.

After overseeing renovations to Del Mar’s grandstands and the turf course, Harper finally realized a dream of bringing a Breeders’ Cup to the facility last fall. Despite its smaller size, Del Mar broke the event’s on-track wagering records in November.

“Well, Joe remains the CEO, and I hope that continues for some time,” Rubinstein says. “I’ve said this before, but Joe has established an amazing culture at Del Mar that focuses on service and entertainment, or ‘the show,’ as he puts it. I guess you could say, ‘Don’t screw it up’ is somewhere in my job description.”

Harper has been in a management position at Del Mar since 1978. When he was named general manager at the age of 32, the newspapers said he was the youngest racetrack GM in the country. “I am now the oldest general manager at a racetrack,” he says.

There is no set plan for when Rubinstein will take over Del Mar, Harper says. He is more of a feeler than a thinker and has depended on instinct and intuition all of his life.

“I don’t see myself hanging around here until I am ready to keel over,” Harper says. “When it feels right, I will know it.”