Del Mar opens, and horse racing is just part of the party

Del Mar opens a 36-day meet, the glamour of horse racing there remaining much the same as when Bing Crosby co-founded the track.

DEL MAR — It was still morning, but the line for drinks spilled out of the dining car as the Amtrak train snaked down the coast bound for Del Mar on Thursday. Summer in San Diego can't really start without the Del Mar opener and, for many on the train, Del Mar can't really open without a drink or two beforehand.

The 36-day meet began on Thursday, and the glamour and allure of horse racing there remains much the same as when Bing Crosby founded the track in 1937. Perhaps only Saratoga, in New York, still holds a summer meet as successful as Del Mar's.


Del Mar has escaped the old, male stigma of many of its rivals by embracing the draws, such as its proximity to the Pacific, that have little to do with horse racing. What has emerged is a thoroughbred meet that doubles as a continuous summer-long party.

"It just happens everything falls in place at this meet," said Art Sherman, the trainer of California Chrome and a veteran of the California racing circuit.

The train didn't have enough seats to contain the crush of revelers, so men in three-piece suits crowded into the aisle. Afterward, the patrons waited for old shuttles to ferry them to the track. Black designer sunglasses and thick gold wristwatches crammed onto yellow school buses.

In the back, some passed around a flask. A sign above the driver cautioned, "NO FOOD, DRINK OR GUM ON THE BUS!" It was collectively ignored. The shuttles converged on the track, and the party could begin.

Most other tracks nationwide have seen crowds dwindle and age, but Del Mar's is a youthful anomaly. Until the past two years, the track had set records for attendance eight years in a row. It hasn't had an opening crowd under 40,000 in a decade — Thursday's attendance was 42,021. The handle, including off-track, was $14,858,277. Joe Harper, the track's president and chief executive, said it attracts a higher percentage of female patrons than any track in the country.

The marketing push began 20 years ago. Back then the track's commercials featured, in Harper's description, "horses coming out of the gates and some bad actors pretending they were jumping up and down cheering."

That had grown stale, and the track commissioned a market-research study that arrived at an odd conclusion. Most potential horse-racing customers, it found, didn't really care about horse racing.

"And that's when we got rid of the horses in our commercial and put, basically, pretty people out there," Harper said. "And that worked."

By the first few races on Thursday, the crush of those pretty people and all the others had snarled the concourses of the grandstand where the cigar smoke hung thick. There was more space in the infield, though the line for the women's room remained long. The stealthy eyes of some passersby darted up and down short dresses. Most hands held a cup.

Nearby, one man strolled past with a large entourage of women in little pink dresses. They were his co-workers, he said. He declined to give his name; he said his wife would be angry.

Closer to the track, hats bloomed above the crowds. The best gathered in the winner's circle before the featured race. Belinda Berry, 61, of Walnut Creek was this year's winner. Afterward, she was asked about the races.

"They have horse races?" she said. She was mostly joking. "Who knew?"

Hats and marketing aside, Del Mar also has advantages that few others enjoy. The draw of its location, right on the Pacific, is as obvious now as when Crosby recorded the song "Where the Turf Meets the Surf" to promote the track.

The San Diego market is just small enough to ensure that the meet is the biggest show in town. And the timing of the meet, at the peak of the summer season, attracts vacationers and socialites, some of whom rent out vacation homes on the beach. After-parties abound.


The result is a wave of relatively well-off young and middle-age patrons. Johnny Manziel was scheduled to appear Thursday. It would not have seemed unusual, but he didn't show.

"It's the one day I ask off all year from work," said Melissa Chang, a 30-year-old flight attendant from Carlsbad. "That's it."

Del Mar does have well-kept racing facilities, and it draws a strong field. It finished remodeling its grandstands in 1991, and it still feels modern. The paddock area was designed to be wide open to allow guests to mingle among the horses there. As a confirmation that Del Mar can run a race as well as it throws a party, it won the bid for the Breeders' Cup in 2017.

Del Mar isn't the only track whose success has but a flimsy connection to the racing. In 2011, when Pimlico Race Course in Maryland introduced Kegasus — the half-man, half-horse, "all party manimal" mascot, according to his official bio — attendance at the Preakness Stakes swelled to 107,398 from 77,850 in 2009 when the track banned patrons from bringing their own beer.

Patrons at Del Mar on Thursday didn't seem to have trouble finding liquor. The only key, said Berry, the hat-contest winner, is making sure your headgear is free-standing, leaving your hands available for more important matters.

"If you have to hold it in place with your hand, you diminish your capacity for enjoying the day," she said.

Most in the crowd followed the races well enough, though some would be hard-pressed to name the winner of the featured Oceanside Stakes race. That was won by Enterprising on an electric late charge.

After the races were over, losing betting slips were left spread on the ground like fallen leaves. Two hot-air balloons hovered above. Patrons made toward the exit, though not all were going home. In the sky, the sun hadn't yet disappeared. The night was still young, and the next party was just beginning.