Del Mar racetrack: A day at the races

Special to The Los Angeles Times

Del Mar

From Del Mar’s upper grandstand levels, you can see the glistening Pacific. During turf races, you can marvel from the infield at the grace of the Thoroughbreds racing toward you, the afternoon sunlight bringing out every sparkle in the jockeys’ colorful silks.

Del Mar’s many lovely sights are a big reason the coastal track has the highest average daily attendance (16,719 last year) of any California track, almost double that of second-place Santa Anita.

For many, however, there’s no lovelier sight than watching their horse cross the finish line first. And though I was at Del Mar to find ways to win without ever placing a bet, for this race I couldn’t resist. Seven Nation Army -- also a song by one of my favorite groups, the White Stripes -- finished first in a one-length victory that was a beauty to behold. I stayed over a second day at Del Mar so I could bet the full card.

But as the track prepares to open its season Wednesday, this story’s original proposition holds: You can win without ever placing a bet at laid-back Del Mar.

Laid back?

That’s not something you associate with racetracks, but Del Mar’s small-town, coastal setting puts you in a relaxed mood as soon as you step onto the grounds.

My favorite description of the track’s easygoing atmosphere came from the late Eddie Read, the track’s longtime publicist. At Del Mar, he said, “nobody’s in a hurry except the horses.”


The slogan for the Del Mar track is “where the turf meets the surf,” a line from a Bing Crosby recording played every racing day.

Crosby was the guiding force behind the opening of the track in 1937, and the tune captures nicely the atmosphere Read was talking about:

Take a plane, take a train, take a car

There’s a smile on every face

And a winner in every race

Where the turf meets the surf at Del Mar.

The track, with its handsome Spanish Mission-style architecture, is about 100 miles south of Los Angeles, and you can take a train -- from downtown Union Station or a few Orange County stops -- to nearby Solana Beach, where a double-deck bus takes you on to the track. If you prefer to drive, it’s a little more than two hours on a good traffic day.

For the adventurous who don’t require much sleep, leave early enough to get to Del Mar in time for the workouts, which run from sunrise to around 9 a.m. You might even see stakes winners, such as Lava Man, exercising on the track’s $8-million Polytrack surface, which was installed last year.

On Saturdays and Sundays, there’s a buffet ($9.95) during the workouts. The food is plain, but an announcer points out famous horses and answers questions.

After that, explore some of the track’s history and charms. There are many large, vintage photographs of the early days in and around O’Brien’s Pub, which was named after one of Crosby’s cohorts, actor Pat O’Brien. You’ll see shots of Crosby, George Burns, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, jockey Willie Shoemaker and the legendary Seabiscuit.

To add to the resort feel, there’s a playground in the infield for children, and free concerts, featuring contemporary bands aimed at the under-35 crowd, are held after the final race on Fridays.

Since the first race starts at 2 p.m. (4 on some Fridays), there’s plenty of time to go off-track for lunch. One of my favorite spots is Fidel’s Little Mexico, a tasty, family-style restaurant in Solana Beach.

But you’ll want to be back at the track at least 30 minutes before the first race for some homework that may help you get into the spirit of the day.


The first thing to do at the track is pick up a program, which is free with admission and lists the horses and jockeys in each race. Also, buy a Daily Racing Form ($4.50), sold at a stand near the entrance. The form lists each horse’s racing history as well as the opinions of handicappers about each race.

Why care what the handicappers say if you aren’t betting? Reading about their selections helps you appreciate the drama of each race.

It’s fun to see how the handicappers’ various scenarios play out. Does that front-runner really have the speed to go start to finish? What about that come-from-behind horse that is dropping in class and that another handicapper says is his “sleeper” of the day?

Brad Free, a star handicapper for the Racing Form, says the possibilities in almost every race are endless, which means there is no such thing as a sure winner in a sport where the favorites win only around 25% to 30% of the time.

The next stop is the outdoor paddock area where, about 20 minutes before the start of each race, the horses gather with their jockeys, trainers and owners for a ritual that is the equivalent of opening day in baseball. Everyone is filled with optimism as the horses begin their march to the starting gate.

Because Del Mar is one of the nation’s top tracks, you’ll often find many of the sport’s most celebrated figures on hand -- jockeys such as Corey Nakatani and Garrett Gomez, trainers Doug O’Neill and Jeff Mullins, even celebrity owners such as composer Burt Bacharach and A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss.

The paddock is also a great place to people-watch. The bettors crowd together, eagerly eyeing the horses, hoping to pick up some kind of clue before going to the betting window. What about those bandages on the horses’ back legs? Is that a good sign or a bad one? And why is that horse sweating so much? What does that mean?

I’ve seen horseplayers who have spent hours with the Racing Form, trying to figure out the likely winner, only to throw all of that away when a horse happens to look their way and blink. At least once a day, you’ll hear someone say, excitedly, “That horse winked at me. I’m going to bet on him.”

Once the horses step on the track, find a good spot to watch the race. You can stand by the rail or buy a reserve seat in the grandstand. I prefer the rail because it’s where emotion seems to peak when announcer Trevor Denman declares at the start of the race: “And awaaayyy they go.”


Let’s use the opening race on this day last summer to talk about the drama of thoroughbred competition.

An entry named Feel Free to Flee was the overwhelming favorite -- with odds so low that you would have received only $1.40 profit on every $2 bet. Feel Free to Flee was a favorite partly because the horse was trained by Bob Baffert, one of the nation’s top trainers. Plus, Feel beat the second favorite in the day’s race, Toy’s Toy, by seven lengths last time out.

Still, several handicappers picked Toy’s, arguing that the horse has more natural speed and that the last race was a fluke. So it was a classic case of the public favorite, Feel Free, against the handicappers’ favorite, Toy’s Toy.

As it happened, neither of the favorites came close to winning. A horse named Mary Ellise beat Feel Free by almost five lengths and Toy’s Toy by nearly seven. The winner returned a profit of $10.60 for every $2 win bet.

You can imagine the grumbling from those who had bet on the favorites. Dozens of them moved down to the winner’s circle to curse the jockey, the horse and even the person standing next to them. In racing, it’s always someone else’s fault when you bet on the wrong horse, or so you’d think.

Eventually, attention turns to the next race and the whole process begins again at the paddock. Hungry? Try the outdoor patio of O’Brien’s Pub because it looks down on the paddock parade, enabling you to see all the pre-race ceremony.

And don’t think you have to learn the rules of handicapping -- though Free’s book, “Handicapping 101,” will help you with that.

Some people bet on favorite jockeys, others throw their money behind the horse with the prettiest silks. Still others come up with their own plan. My wife, for instance, thinks there’s something magical about gray horses with 6-1 odds.

So how did I do on my “betting day” at Del Mar?

At the end, it was pretty much a wash, but I had fun, which reminded me of an old joke by Joe Frisco, a comedian who specialized in track stories.

It seems one day Frisco had a smile on his face as he left the track and a buddy asked how he did. “I broke even,” the upbeat Frisco said, “which is good because I can sure use the money.”