Ahead lies a seemingly endless chain of pulsing brake lights as we crawl through heavy Friday evening traffic on the San Diego Freeway. I tap my fingers on the wheel and fiddle with the radio to cloak the growls of my empty stomach.
My wife, Mary Lou, is oblivious. She is transfixed by an already dogeared copy of Saturday's Daily Racing Form. Under the soft glow of the overhead light, she is immersed in such weighty issues as whether Rapen Boy can run as well on dirt as he does on grass and if Tossofthecoin can go the distance.
This is serious stuff for track hounds. We are headed to Del Mar, about 20 miles north of San Diego, where, for about seven glorious weeks through Sept. 14, some of the nation's best racing takes place at a newly refurbished track that is steeped in Hollywood history.
Our drive took about two hours from our home in Long Beach, and we arrived close to 10 p.m. at the Stratford Inn, a 108-room hotel (large motel, really) on Camino Del Mar. We chose it because it's close to the racetrack, we were able to book a room only a week ahead, and we got a rate of $85 a night, a relative bargain (rooms are often booked on racing weekends). We were also pleased to learn at the front desk that the hotel offers a shuttle service to and from the track. We signed up immediately, suspecting--correctly, it turns out--that an invasion by 50,000 or so gamblers a day would snarl traffic.
We dropped our bags in our room and went searching for a late supper, ending up at the Cafe Del Mar, a California cuisine kind of place. The aroma of a tasty but pungent baked garlic appetizer we ordered announced our presence to all the other diners on the patio. From there it was then straight to bed, because Saturday's schedule started early. Mary Lou, the more serious racing fan of the two of us, wanted to catch the horses going through their morning workouts.
I must admit that at first I wasn't crazy about the idea of rising at daybreak to watch a bunch of horses trot around, only to return and see the real thing that afternoon. But it was well worth it. The thud of hoofs against damp earth broke the silence of a gray, misty morning. The sleek, muscled animals puffed like steam locomotives as they strained to slice another 10th of a second off their best times.
We hung out along the rail until 8 a.m., when the gates opened for a track-sponsored "Donuts Day." Twice during the meet (the next day is Aug. 27), the track offers fans free doughnuts and coffee along with the opportunity to ask questions of track announcer Trevor Denman, as well as a leading jockey, trainer and steward, as the racing judges are called.
The session was highly entertaining. Questions ranged from how jockeys can appeal misconduct suspensions, to the procedure for assigning numbers to horses for a race. One superstitious bettor asked jockey Gary Stevens what time he was born. (Answer: 6:20 a.m.)
Don't applaud, we were told, since it might disturb the horses. Everyone flailed their arms to show their appreciation instead.
Afterward, we headed back to the hotel for much-needed mid-morning naps. We later hopped aboard the hotel van for the track, arriving in plenty of time to plan our bets before the first post time of 2 p.m.
General admission to the track is $3, and there are several seating options. The infield area and the less-desirable fringes of the grandstand are free. We chose grandstand seats almost directly above the finish line at $4 each. Our seats were on Level 5, the top floor, and pillars supporting the roof partially obstructed the view. Level 2 or 3 would have been better. (Seat tickets are available by mail and at the track on most days.)
The next task was to sample track food, which at Del Mar is something of a scavenger hunt. Snack bars and bars are scattered throughout the track, and there are a couple of sit-down restaurants in the clubhouse area.
We started by splitting a rather skimpy corned beef sandwich from the Trifecta Carver on the third level, and later had fish tacos from Rubio's stand on the first level. To thoroughly mix cuisines, we then tried some excellent orange chicken cooked to order at a Chinese food stand on Level 2. After that eating extravaganza, we should have searched for antacids, but instead we turned our attention to the horses.
My wife and I have very different gambling styles. I am a conservative $2 bettor looking for the sure thing. Mary Lou loves long shots and exotic wagers. Hence she doesn't win very often, but when she does, it's an event worth celebrating.
I gradually accumulated a profit of a couple of bucks while Mary Lou was down about $50. But on the last race, I took a flyer on a 25-to-1 horse, Bold Capital, that won, so we broke even for the day when racing wrapped up around 6:30 p.m.
On the recommendation of a track security guard, we headed for dinner at Bully's North. One of the better-known track hangouts, Bully's is a dimly lit refuge of tufted red leather upholstery and pillow-sized slabs of beef that seemed out of place in health-conscious, trendy Del Mar.
Entering through a heavy wood door carved with a jockey and a horse, we were told that Bully's doesn't take reservations and the wait would be more than an hour. We took a place at the bar and sipped vodka martinis, which seemed to make the time pass considerably faster.
Almost everybody was having the prime rib, so we did too. We chose the prime rib dinner for two, a two-inch-thick full cut that was more than enough. It was the best prime rib either of us could recall, and we waddled out of the restaurant, saying we couldn't possibly eat again for days.
The next morning, we nursed ourselves through the previous night's assault of fat and booze by picking up coffee and muffins from the hotel's complimentary continental breakfast, served in the Paddock Room.
Then we were off for a long walk down the main beach, about a half-mile north of the hotel. The sunny beachfront was alive with surfers, Boogie boarders, children building sandcastles and strolling couples.
We caught a quick lunch at the Baja Grill in the village, where the mango margaritas had just the right amount of sweetness. I had a bowl of tortilla soup loaded with pieces of shellfish, but Mary Lou complained that there wasn't enough grilled mahi-mahi in her tacos. We finished just in time to make the long walk to the track for the start of Sunday's racing.
This time, we sat in the so-called clubhouse actually, just the other end of the grandstand--for $2 more apiece. The only real difference appeared to be the linoleum flooring, instead of bare concrete, and a less-enthusiastic crowd.
The atmosphere was too sedate, my wife decided. When the ponies turn for home, true racing fans are on their feet, screaming for their horses. There were far too many people who stayed seated in the clubhouse, she complained.
Our luck turned cold. I spent less time betting and more time admiring the splendor of the setting. It was a chance to look over what is arguably California's most beautiful track. The grandstand, first built by Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien in 1937, was razed to make way last year for an $80-million wonder of concrete and steel. Yet the Spanish Mission-style charm of the building was retained, along with lush landscaping and ocean views.
Today, it's more a magnet for San Diego's business and society elite than for Hollywood's A List. But reminders of its celebrity-rich past abound, from historical photos lining the walls to the recording of crooner Crosby's "Where the Turf Meets the Surf" played daily over the loudspeaker before the first race.
It had come time for us to go. Mary Lou sunk the last of her betting money into a track sweat shirt and we were off . . . back to the crowded freeway.
Woodyard is a reporter for The Times' Orange County edition.
Budget for Two Stratford Inn, 2 nights: $187.00 Cafe Del Mar: $33.41 Track admissions: $18.00 Track seats: $16.00 Shuttle driver tip: $3.00 Racing Forms, programs: $9.00 Gambling losses: $48.40 Track food: $27.60 Bully's North: $36.38 Baja Grill: $25.00 Gas: $15.00 FINAL TAB: $418.79 Stratford Inn, 710 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar 92014; (800) 446-7229 or (619) 755-1501.