We’re down at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, where Champagne is the “soup of the day” and the nearby surf sprinkles you with its briny perfume. Not that it needs to. The cool air itself soothes the skin here in North County. Like cotton sheets in the ridiculously expensive seaside inns.
Here in the Turf Club, there is seersucker and silly hats, sweaty beverages and expensive sauces. Scenes like this always make me a little twitchy. Too much frat-boy bonhomie sets off my alarms, squeezes the adrenals.
Horse racing is a strange passion, all right, followed by some exceedingly strange folks. Strange folks like me, I suppose, for I’ve followed it for four decades, seen it fade, seen it triumph, and now, perhaps more than ever before, seen it challenged.
When you think about it, all our passions are a little flawed. In some important ways, passion compromises us, as is evidenced this Saturday afternoon by the protesters at Del Mar’s front door.
You can’t reason with them — the passions, not the protesters, though they are very difficult too, as protesters should be.
Are our passions getting the best of us here at Del Mar? Are we ignoring common sense and moral imperative? Sure, to some degree, even buying a gallon of gas or ordering fish involves an ethical trade-off. But can horse racing survive this attack on its soul?
The canary in the coal mine will be Del Mar, one of the sport’s biggest success stories, a vibrant social smash, a summer rite.
Welcome to our coal mine.
The crowds still come here by train, plane and automobile. Way back in 1937, Bing Crosby created Del Mar as a retreat where the turf meets the surf. His first planning sessions were at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. Even the photo finish was created for Del Mar, by a movie tech, a stop-action trigger soon adopted around the world.
Indeed, this is world-class entertainment: Seabiscuit, Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper, Bill Shoemaker, Zenyatta.
So, in many ways, Del Mar is a Hollywood tent pole franchise, but in recent years San Diego has made the track its own, embracing it, supporting it, showing up in excessive numbers. There is no business that can’t be enhanced by 20,000 tan and fit San Diegans dressed to impress. I would never bet against this track. Like a major movie star, it is equally cunning and attractive.
“We’re around horses a lot,” says Bailey Thomen, 28, visiting from Denver. “If you’re around horses, you know how well cared for they are.”
“They’re worth a lot of money,” says her friend, Jordan Hinton, 30. “It only makes sense to keep them safe.”
“Sure, you see the protesters out front,” says Jeff Holland, here for the day from nearby Carlsbad.
“I’m an animal lover,” adds his wife, Jen. “We have a rescue dog.”
“But we’ve never actually seen a horse go down,” says Jeff, who visits the grandstand a few times every season.
Yet thoroughbreds do go down, recently in unsettling numbers at Santa Anita. Though Del Mar had the nation’s lowest death rate last year — 0.79 per 1,000 starts — any death is troubling, and a freak training accident killed two horses here July 18, just after opening day.
“Thoroughbred horses have the best care that any animal on earth can experience,” insists Connie Broge, who for 18 years has run Del Mar’s Winner’s Circle, where winning jockeys and owners gather for photos after a triumphant race. “What other animal has a team of people assigned to their health and well-being every day of the year, 24 hours a day?”
Here’s my take on the risks versus the rewards: For all the trilling laughter, the bachelor parties, the moneyed ambiance, race tracks like Del Mar are still the most affordable working class sports venues in America, a far better value than even a minor league ball game.
For $6, you get spectacle.
I start at the Clubhouse and work my way north, swept up by alpha trainer Doug O’Neill and his entourage in the Winner’s Circle after the third race, 40 or 50 people — how many groupies does O’Neill have?
There are smiles, there is glad-handing, and multiple keepsakes from the track photog, then Champagne in a special room upstairs where owners and trainers retreat to watch a replay and toast one another for their good fortune.
TJ Stroben, a real estate agent who moonlights at the bar here, holds up her sign: “Soup of the day: Champagne.”
Then to the more lowbrow grandstand we go, to the rail, amid the purple hipster hair and the muscle shirts, the lawn chairs, the Hawaiian leis; and the vibe never changes. Sure, the outfits get a little more slutty-daring-whooooa, and the flirty youngsters work the stands like herds of hungry deer. Here, there is beer instead of Tito’s … tattoos instead of pearls. My peeps.
Gawd, this track remains a beautiful scene, floor to ceiling, luxe boxes to gritty rail, topped only by the velvet sheen of the horses themselves.
“I love everything,” Tommy Monaco says in a clipped Long Island twang. “Look around.”
San Diego might be the happy face capital of the world. And there is no pejorative in that. There is something in the sun that restores us; just ask out-of-towners like Tommy.
That sun-kissed quality can probably be said of every place south of Santa Barbara. But the restorative powers of California are never so backlighted, so loud, so fevered, as at Del Mar.
“It’s either your day or it’s not,” says a $2 bettor hugging the rail, a sentiment that can apply to more than just tracks.
Look, we view horse racing now through a muddy window. Protesters are circling, with legitimate concerns over safety.
Makes you ask: At what price this magnificent sport?
Frankly, if you’re going to apply a morality clause to sports, and you definitely should, I’d worry more about the predatory world of gymnastics. Or the long-term head damage of schoolboy football.
“Maybe it’s not so much the track surface as it is the drugs,” suggests race fan Mark Mora, who sees more safeguards emerging from the current scrutiny.
Can racing escape from under this cloud? Can it reenergize itself as feasible, compassionate and worth the trade-offs?
Del Mar races Wednesdays to Sundays, through Sept. 2 (Labor Day Monday). Post time is 2 p.m., except on Fridays, when races begin at 4 p.m. Gates open two hours before. General admission is $6; Clubhouse $10. Info: (858) 755-1141, dmtc.com