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For Del Mar workers, it’s a long opening day at a timeless track

More than 40,000 spectators were on hand during the opening day of the Del Mar season Thursday.

More than 40,000 spectators were on hand during the opening day of the Del Mar season Thursday.

(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The gates weren’t yet open at Del Mar when the day’s first boater hats and dresses showed up to chase the past.

Already, the sun burned bright above the racetrack. It has never rained on opening day at Del Mar, not once, so on Thursday, the start of this year’s 40-day summer meet, the weather was pretty much the same as it was last year, the year before and in 1937, when Bing Crosby personally welcomed the first fans through the turnstiles.

That, and the Gatsbyesque attire, gives Del Mar a timeless feel, and well before dawn, the staff had been preparing for the crush of revelers hoping to recapture the glory days of a dying sport.

But the staffers, many of whom started here in the middle of last century, know a funny thing. This day has always been their longest of the year, only lately, it’s been longer than ever.

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Nine of the track’s 10 highest-attended days have come in the last decade. On Thursday, 40,304 fans showed up, far more than even in Crosby’s time.

“Today,” said Steve Brubaker, the track’s operation manager, “is a true, true holiday.”

Brubaker showed up at his office at 6 a.m. By midmorning, beer vendors hurried to reinforce their stockpiles. In front of the grandstand, the bugler practiced the Call to Post.

A woman tried on a hat as a vendor set up her wares. It flowed off her head like waves on the ocean. The day’s first sale was made.

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This, Brubaker said, is the quiet time. Soon, the frenzy began: finding space for all the cars. When Brubaker began as an errand boy, in 1954, the track was so dependent on the Los Angeles crowd, the first race wouldn’t start until the southbound train arrived.

They needed just a tiny sliver of parking lot. Now? About 13,000 spaces.

For horsemen, the track was once the third choice, behind Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.

“We really were the poor stepchild,” said Dan Smith, who started working for the track’s marketing and public relations department in 1964.

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Working here was quieter then. Now, Brubaker said, pointing to a map of the track, “It’s a 15-hour day, and it’s just putting out a fire here, putting out a fire here and putting out a fire here.”

Leon Davis, the janitorial supervisor, got here even earlier than Brubaker. His crew, responsible for disposing of prodigious amounts of plastic cups, cans and betting slips, showed up at 4 a.m. A former heavyweight boxer, Davis moved to San Diego on a whim, began picking up trash here in 1969 and never left.

“People that work here, they don’t quit,” he said.

It is not hard to see why. In the infield, a woman in a veil teetered on high heels into the bacchanal. At the betting window, a man in a robin’s egg suit slapped money down and a group of women slapped cups together and toasted, “Happy Del Mar!”

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The races were strong, but that hardly mattered. The crowd roared for the first post, just a regular claims race, even louder than for the featured race — Soul Driver won that, the Oceanside Stakes, by a nose.

Afterward, bets were cashed or cursed or forgotten in the haze of too many beers. Davis’ crew collected the detritus.

As they have for decades, Brubaker and his staff decompressed on the operations building porch. They watched the last revelers stumble by with shirts untucked and high heels slung over shoulders.

“God gave us the sunshine,” Brubaker said. “He gave us the location, with the ocean right out here. And he gave us a young, young group.”

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It has only grown younger and bigger.

On the porch, it was as it has always been. It was Del Mar’s, agreeable, 70 degrees. The revelers were headed to after parties, some at the same houses and venues they’ve gone to for years.

Naturally, over the Pacific, no clouds blocked the still-setting sun.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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