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Party atmosphere accents Del Mar opening

A record crowd of 45,309 is on hand as unbeaten Twirling Candy wins the $112,500 Oceanside Stakes at one mile on the turf.

They came by cars, limos, trains and planes. Ladies wore hats so brash and colorful that strangers stopped to take photos. Men dressed in white suits and carrying drinks gawked and prowled. It was an atmosphere worthy of a Hollywood premiere. That’s how big and popular opening day at Del Mar has become.

“It was explained to me a long time ago it’s the second most attended social event in California next to the Academy Awards,” said trainer Eric Kruljac, whose horse, North Fork, won Wednesday’s opening race. “I’ve been coming here for 35, 40 years, and it’s the greatest racetrack in the summer by a lot.”

For at least one day, the doom and gloom that has plagued Southern California horse racing was largely forgotten, replaced by the roars from a boisterous record crowd of 45,309, topping last year’s record attendance of 44,907.

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For weeks, Southern California jockeys have become accustomed to small crowds and eerie silence riding at Hollywood Park, so it must have been culture shock hearing and observing the party-like scene.

“It’s fun,” jockey Joel Rosario said. “It’s kind of cool.”

Rosario earned the biggest payday, guiding the unbeaten 3-year-old Twirling Candy to a 2¼-length victory over Macias in the $112,500 Oceanside Stakes at one mile on the turf.

Twirling Candy, a son of Candy Ride, was making only the third start of his career and his first around two turns. Trained by John Sadler, Twirling Candy is a stablemate of Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney’s Candy and could become a prominent horse in the Sadler stable with the relative ease of his victory.

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Another jockey who enjoyed a productive opening day was Victor Espinoza, who won the first two races and finished with three victories on the first day of a scheduled 37-day summer meeting.

“I’m excited for this meeting,” Espinoza said. “I’m going to ride as hard as I can. After I won seven races in one day here [in 2006], can I not like that?”

It was a good day for the Polytrack and new track superintendent Richard Tedesco. There were no problems related to the synthetic surface. An overcast sky kept the temperature relatively mild.

There were long lines, whether for the bathrooms, the shuttle buses to the train station or for betting. There were celebrity sightings. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers joined Oakland Raiders quarterback Kyle Boller and his new wife, the former Miss California Carrie Prejean, in the winner’s circle after the third race. And everywhere, people seemed to be having a good time.

“What goes on in Del Mar stays in Del Mar,” one fan said.

Track officials say the secret to attracting fans is to make it a day for fun and relaxation.

“You’ve got to make believe you’re in the entertainment business,” Chief Executive Joe Harper said. “What a better spot than Del Mar. There’s the Pacific Ocean, palm trees are blowing in the breeze. You have a lot of crazy things going on — hat contests, concerts. It’s become a fun place to be.”

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com


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