Vann Belvoir is among the thousands of out-of-towners who have anxiously converged for today's opening ceremonies of the 51st season at the Del Mar Race Track.
But come post time, you won't find him slamming beers with his buddies in the infield or inhaling the rarefied air of the Turf Club. And don't look for him at the betting windows, either.
At the coltish age of 16, Belvoir will be the youngest jockey in recent memory to compete at Del Mar. The Seattle high school student and apprentice rider will be lining up alongside some of the biggest names in the horse-racing business--people like Laffit Pincay Jr., Pat Valenzuela and Eddie Delahoussaye.
This year, the first season that jockey emeritus Bill Shoemaker steps out of the saddle to become a horse trainer at Del Mar, Belvoir hopes to follow in the great rider's hoof prints, leaving his mark at the dirt-filled oval track.
As the track opens its 43-day season before an anticipated crowd of about 25,000, the son of a Washington state horse trainer who has always dreamed of competing against the best will finally get his chance to realize a fantasy.
"This is something I've always wanted to do," said Belvoir, who arrived in San Diego on Monday, escorted by his mother. "The first thing I want to do is meet Bill Shoemaker. He's one of the classics of this sport."
Belvoir's appearance is among this year's wrinkles to a much-celebrated passage of summer in San Diego County: the running of the ponies at Del Mar.
This year, there will be more places to bet on the action without actually showing up at the track, as Del Mar's inter-track wagering network grows to 13 satellites, including one as far away as the Cabazon Indian Bingo Palace and Gaming Center in Indio.
There are larger purses totaling more than $14 million over the season, a reduced $2 exacta on all nine races to make a day at the track a less expensive prospect for race-goers--even a new 900 number offers announcer Trevor Denman's actual stretch calls, jockey changes and the morning line.
There's also a new catering service, replete with a French chef who aims to please. Jacques Patou of Premier Foods is trucking in 500 pounds each of large shrimp, roast beef and ham.
Speaking from his crowded kitchen, he claimed he was ready to please the palates of not only the track's concession but also the demanding Turf Club audience.
"It could be a nightmare," he said in a thick accent. "But I sure hope not."
Even with their newest twists, what Del Mar Thoroughbred Club officials really hope to offer this season is more of the same from previous years.
"The nice thing about coming to opening day at Del Mar is knowing you're going to see the same colorful tradition that Bing Crosby and a few friends started back in the Depression," said track publicist Steve Schuelein.
"Just before the start of the first race, there's this tremendous roar from the stands as the horses go to the gate. You don't see that at every track, especially the ones that go year-round.
"But here in Del Mar, we have 10 months of anticipation each year before the first post time. People just look forward to the ambience of the track."
Everyone, that is, except some Del Mar residents.
For many locals, opening day means the beginning of a period of hibernation, a time when Del Mar's 5,100 residents would rather stay indoors than face the traffic and crowds of outsiders the racing season attracts.
"There's a love-hate relationship in this town when it comes to that race track," said Councilman Rod Franklin. "The love side comes when you look at the city budget and all the programs that are funded by the profits from off-track and pari-mutuel betting.
"The hate side, of course, is the hibernation factor. Del Mar breathes a collective sigh of relief in September when the track winds down. That's when the people of Del Mar can finally reclaim their city."
Locals have cheered the trend that has seen track attendance steadily decline--even on opening day--since the introduction of off-track betting two years ago.
But even a long summer of racing is preferred over the much-debated Del Mar Fair, some residents say. "With the fair, it's just all the traffic and the noise. At least with the racing, you know it's going to be over each day at 7 p.m.," Franklin said.
"In a perfect world, Del Mar would like to think of a better way to use that ground down there. But this isn't a perfect world. Frankly, we need the money generated by that track."
Even the Del Mar Chamber of Commerce members are divided over the start of yet another racing season.
"For certain businesses in town such as the restaurants, it's a gay season," said chamber President Robin Mitchell, the owner of an interior design business.
"But there are service-oriented businesses like mine that are hurt by all the traffic. It makes it difficult to see your customers. Still, the Del Mar racing season is a tradition that's part of the beauty of this place.
"Every year, the racing season brings a feeling of adrenaline that you don't normally get in a laid-back little beach town."
Come post time, adrenaline is just what 108-pound Vann Belvoir is going to feel racing through his stomach like a pack of thundering hoofs down a dusty backstretch.
No matter that, as an apprentice jockey, he'll be allowed to ride five pounds lighter than the pros. And no matter that other jockeys will also be riding their mounts for the very first time.
Because when the gate lifts, Belvoir will be chasing a legend at a track that has long been a proving ground for apprentice jockeys. In 1949, Bill Shoemaker led the standings as a "bug rider" with 52 winners.
And although Belvoir is the second-leading jockey at the Longacre race track in Seattle with 60 winners through July, racing at Del Mar is a whole new game for a young jockey.
"It's kind of unusual to see someone so young go against such big names," said race track spokesman Dan Smith. "This is a tough circuit. And for anybody, even an older rider, to come in here and compete against the best riders in the world has got to put some butterflies in your stomach.
"But put this kid's five-pound weight advantage together with the talent of a kid who can ride like he can and you've got a potential combination."
One thing's for sure, when Belvoir climbs atop Musique D'Enfer before today's second race, he'll be ready to ride. Like the wind.
"Every time I go out, I believe I have a chance in every race," said Belvoir, who also competes on his high school wrestling team. "Anything can happen."
And how does a 16-year-old jockey prepare for the horse race of his young life?
If you're Vann Belvoir, and it's Southern California, you go to the zoo with your aunt and mother. "And I'm going to try to get some boogie-boarding in too," he said.