Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has tapped veteran gateman John Lopez to serve as its starter for the 2012 race meeting in place of regular starter Gary Brinson, who will miss the season as he deals with a family illness.

Lopez, who brings 35 years of gate experience to the job, including 26 at Del Mar, was hired Monday by DMTC president Joe Harper after he had consulted with Brinson, Del Mar’s racing secretary Tom Robbins and other knowledgeable racing officials.

“Gary’s unfortunate situation at this time put us in a tough spot, but we got a good man to fill the bill,” Harper said. “John Lopez’s extended experience – and the fact that he’s been a starter before – gave him the edge to run the starting gate this summer. And he’ll be helped greatly by the fact that virtually the entire crew from last season again will be working with him.”

Del Mar’s 37-day season is off and running Wednesday, July 18.

Lopez, 54, has worked at every race meet in Southern California as well as most of the fair tracks in the north. He served as starter for the 2009 Fairplex Park meeting when regular starter Jay Slender was sidelined due to knee surgery.

“I’m honored that I was asked to take on the job,” Lopez said.  “It’s a challenge, but I’m ready for it. I know starting gates and I know Del Mar in particular. And, with the exception of one man who had already made other plans for the summer, we’ll have our entire crew back. I think we can do business as usual.”

Lopez has worked with, or under, California starters Brinson, Tucker Slender and his son Jay. He currently serves as Jay Slender’s “head starter” (No. 1 gateman) for the Santa Anita meetings. He’d filled a similar role for the now-retired senior Slender.

“He’s a good man and he’ll do a good job,” Brinson offered. “He’s solid.”

Brinson noted further that missing the Del Mar meet after 14 consecutive summers as its starter was very difficult for him.

“But when it came down to it, my sick father (former trainer Ross Brinson) needed me and my family always comes first,” he stated. “I’ll miss Del Mar dearly, but I’m needed elsewhere. And they promised me I’d have my job back next year.”

Harper confirmed that Lopez’s hiring was for the 2012 season only with the intention of returning Brinson to the starter’s role in 2013.

Del Mar’s 75th anniversary season will see racing once more offered on a Wednesday through Sunday basis up until September 5. There will be one additional day of sport of Labor Day Monday, September 3.